Start the NHL Playoffs right now.
With the start of the playoffs only three weeks away, things are starting to take shape as far as who is in and who is out. As of now, only two teams have officially punched their ticket to the playoffs; the Nashville Predators in the West and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the East. On the flip side, there are only four teams that have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention; the Buffalo Sabres in the East, and the Vancouver Canucks, Arizona Coyotes, and Chicago Blackhawks in the West. So there is still technically a lot to be decided in the next 21 days.
However, if we scrapped the rest of the regular season and went with the current standings, the current playoff match-ups would be ridiculously good. Here’s a quick look at what they would be:
Tampa Bay Lightning vs New Jersey Devils
Boston Bruins vs Toronto Maple Leafs
Washington Capitals vs Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins vs Columbus Blue Jackets
In the Hunt: Florida Panthers
Ok, I said almost perfect. The Eastern Conference needs just a little bit a tweaking to align some really good first round battles. The Bruins vs Leafs is all but cemented as a first round tilt, and that makes Leafs fans nervous thinking about their colossal Game 7 melt down in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. Both of the match-ups coming from the Metropolitan Division are rematches from last year, and while that is not entirely a bad thing, there’s better to be had. The final series would be the already clinched Lightning vs the Devils. A random series that would be intriguing, but again, there’s better to be had. The tweaking to be done here is having a first round of Tampa Bay vs Florida, Philadelphia vs Pittsburgh, and the Capitals vs the other team. The reasoning is simple, in state rivalries. There has never been an all Florida playoff series and the way the two have played each other this year (26 combined goals in 3 games), combined with a little of that postseason hate, would make for some must watch hockey games. As for the Penguins and the Flyers, just trust me, it’ll be good. That leaves the Capitals with either the Blue Jackets or the Devils, and either way it will be a good fresh match-up for the Caps as people are already looking ahead to yet another year of a second round head to head against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.
Nashville Predators vs Anaheim Ducks
Winnipeg Jets vs Minnesota Wild
Vegas Golden Knights vs Colorado Avalanche
San Jose Sharks vs Los Angeles Kings
In the Hunt: Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues.
Perfection. Like I said either, start the NHL playoffs right now. All these first round potential match-ups are mouth watering. Predators and Ducks is a rematch of the Western Conference Finals last year and will a be a fast and physical tilt throughout. Winnipeg and Minnesota are just across the border from each other and the first ever playoff series between the two would be sure to bring out some hatred as well. The fastest series of the first round would be between the Avalanche and the Golden Knights. Seriously, you might have to watch their games in slow-mo to catch all the action the way the two teams skate. As for the Sharks and the Kings, just trust me again, it’ll be good. Sorry Blues and Stars, this is just too perfect of a set up to make any changes.
Since we know that we can’t have it exactly how we want it most of the time, this all probably won’t happen. And that could be a good thing, as new faces in the playoffs often mean new challenges and the very real possibility that new hatred will boil over. That means that the rest of the regular season must be played out, and that is also a good thing. It leaves the teams currently on the outside of the playoffs a chance to battle their way in, and teams hanging on by a thread to their spots have to play for their seasons every night as well. It makes for much watch hockey.
Many of these tight races will come down to which teams can capitalize on their schedules, and which teams fail to. Who has the winnable games and who has to close out against desperate playoff teams.
In the East, the teams that will have the most say with how things finish is the Bruins and the Penguins. The Bruins start a brutal 4 game road trip through the Central Division tonight as they will take on the Blues, Stars, Wild, and Jets all within the next 7 days. They then close out the rest of their schedule with 2 games against the top seeded Lightning, 3 games against the fighting-for-their-lives Panthers (including the last game on the last day of the regular season) and a tough road game wedged in the middle against the Flyers. With current injuries to some of their top players, the Bruins could struggle down the stretch, giving points to the clustered teams in the West, and allow the Panthers to claw their way into the playoffs to set up an all Florida first round series. Or, they find a way to win some of these games, specifically against the Florida tandem, and set themselves up with the first overall seed in the East and possibly end the Panthers chances of the postseason in the process.
The situation is similar for the Penguins, but much more dire. They are currently fighting off the Blue Jackets and the Flyers for the number 2 spot, while trying to gain ground on the Capitals who are 4 points in front of them. Their remaining schedule features a home and home with the Devils, home games against the Flyers and the Capitals, and a road showdown with the Blue Jackets the final Thursday of the season. Another wrinkle in their schedule is they are the only team to not play on the jam packed last Saturday of the season (April 7th) where all of the other 30 teams will be in action and the Penguins will have to await the results. Again, like the Bruins, some negative results could mean dropping down the standings, perhaps to a Wild Card in their case, or some favorable results could mean avoiding a rival like the Flyers in the first round and a shot at the top spot.
As for the West, only 5 points separates 5 teams and almost every one of them will play each other on a different night. It really is that close in the West, but the final say could come from a few different road trips through California and a home and home between the Wild and the Stars on March 29th and 31st. The Stars desperately need the wins as they find themselves outside of the playoffs after a string of injuries and losses, and the Wild need the wins to keep pace with the rest of the West as they head on that California trip after they square off against the Stars. But before the Wild face off against the Ducks, Kings, and Sharks, the Colorado Avalanche will make the journey through California. Colorado currently is holding on to the top Wild Card spot in the West, but it will be a tough task to take points from not only the California teams, but from the Golden Knights as well when they play a back to back with them on the 24th and 26th.
Points are at a premium for all of these teams and none of them can afford to take just one shift off down the stretch. Do not miss these last few weeks before the playoffs.