First-Round NHL Playoff Matchups We'd Love to See

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistMarch 22, 2014

First-Round NHL Playoff Matchups We'd Love to See

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    They're almost here.

    There's nothing quite like the NHL's postseason. The Stanley Cup playoffs are a grueling marathon for the teams and players that participate and an experience like no other for hockey fans. After a long 82-game season featuring a plethora of meaningless or mundane games, the playoffs are where every contest matters, where every play is vitally important.

    It's all good, but some series are better than others. For reasons of talent or history or star power, some potential matchups stand out from the pack. 

    Read on to view the ones we especially hope to see in the first round.

     

    Statistics courtesy of NHL.com and current through the start of action on March 22, unless otherwise noted. 

Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens

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    Why we like it: This is one of the best rivalries in hockey.

    The history between the Canadiens and Bruins stretches back more than eight decades, with the teams first meeting in the playoffs back in 1929 and the Habs topping Boston in the Stanley Cup Final the following year. There is plenty of recent history, too, with five of the Habs' last eight playoff appearances seeing a round against the Bruins.

    Like any good rivalry, there is no shortage of emotion on both sides. The most recent big incident was the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty; the fallout included a concussion for Pacioretty, then-Bruin Mark Recchi claiming on Boston's 98.5 Sport Hub (h/t TSN) that Montreal embellished that concussion, Habs fans cheering a later injury to Chara and subsequently being ripped as "classless" by Boston agitator Brad Marchand, as reported in the National Post.    

     

    How it could happen: With Boston firmly ensconced at the top of the Atlantic Division, there's really only one way this could happen in the first round: Toronto would need to pass Montreal. Presently, the Maple Leafs are three points back of the Canadiens, with each team having 11 games left to play.  

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

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    Why we like it: The NHL's two Pennsylvania clubs have it all: talent, history and geographic proximity. It was only two years ago that coaches on both sides were getting fined by the NHL for their conduct toward each other, with then-Flyers coach Peter Laviolette calling his counterpart "gutless." 

    But the real attraction of Pittsburgh-Philadelphia is the goaltending. The last time these two teams met in the postseason, it was a disaster, with each game averaging more than nine goals. Marc-Andre Fleury remains one of the NHL's shakiest postseason goalies, while Philadelphia's new starter, Steve Mason, doesn't inspire confidence.

    Not only is there a chance to watch two very good teams go at it, but few matchups promise as much offence. 

     

    How it could happen: It's a bit of a long shot at this point. Both the New York Rangers and Columbus (80 and 78 points, respectively) would need to pass the Flyers, pushing Philadelphia into a wild-card spot and a first-round matchup with Pittsburgh. 

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

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    Why we like it: There's a long case to be made about the respective talent level and the history between these two clubs, but it isn't really necessary.

    Sidney Crosby is probably the best player in the world, but Alexander Ovechkin is near the front of any list of alternative candidates. Toss in Evgeni Malkin and, to a lesser extent, Nicklas Backstrom, and this would be a series loaded with impact players. 

     

    How it could happen: Washington's presently on the playoff bubble, so the Capitals need to climb into the higher of the two wild-card slots to meet Pittsburgh in the first round. 

Columbus Blue Jackets vs. New York Rangers

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    Why we like it: Rick Nash was the captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets for three seasons, but his importance to the franchise extends well beyond that. Hockey-Reference.com shows that he's the all-time franchise leader in games, goals, assists and points, with most of those leads held by a massive margin.

    A first-round playoff series would feature the Blue Jackets, a team that has never won a playoff game, against the one guy worth showing up to see for years and years in Columbus. Toss in all the ex-New York Rangers currently in Columbus, and this would be a series not to miss. 

     

    How it could happen: The Metropolitan Division is still reasonably tight, with the Rangers and Blue Jackets among four of the five teams really in the hunt there. None of them are going to overtake Pittsburgh for the lead, but it's still possible for New York and Columbus to be ranked No. 2 and No. 3 (or vice versa) and therefore see each other in the opening round.

Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks

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    Why we like it: With due respect to the other plausible matchups out there, no contest would see two better hockey teams meet each other. 

    Both teams are models of how NHL franchises should be run. The Kings are big, committed defensively and tenaciously devoted to dominating the possession game. San Jose has offensive depth few clubs out there can match and is in the mix for the Presidents' Trophy.

    These are both Stanley Cup contenders; it would be like watching the Western Conference Final except in the first round. 

     

    How it could happen: Phoenix is five points back of the Kings but could overtake them, bumping L.A. into a first-round series against the winner of the Pacific (San Jose is currently in the lead). More plausible is the Sharks being overtaken by the Anaheim Duck and falling to second in their division, which would guarantee a date with L.A. 

Anaheim Ducks vs. Los Angeles Kings

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    Why we like it: In the last slide, we talked about the Kings' Stanley Cup credentials and established them as a legitimate contender. At first glance, the Ducks deserve the same consideration, but there's a catch. Just like last year, the team is winning games by scoring on a high percentage of shots and making a high percentage of saves rather than by outshooting the opposition.

    For those who don't put much stock in those stats, this is a chance to see two extremely high-end teams play each other, just like the hypothetical Kings-Sharks series. For those who do, it's a chance to see a contender knock off a pretender early, just like Detroit did last season

     

    How it could happen: Anaheim and Los Angeles are currently slated to meet, with the Ducks slotted at No. 2 and the Kings No. 3 in the Pacific Division.