With the NHL regular season nearing its thrilling conclusion, hockey fans can't help but salivate over the potentially great first-round playoff series that may be on the horizon.
Teams still have a game or two remaining on their schedules. However, things are starting to come into focus. Many have been skeptical about the NHL's new playoff format, but it could lead to some fantastic hockey this postseason.
Here is a look at how the NHL playoff standings currently sit, along with further analysis regarding some of the best first-round playoff matchups that could possibly come to fruition.
|Current NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Standings|
|1. Boston Bruins||80||50||115|
|2. Montreal Canadiens||81||39||98|
|3. Tampa Bay Lightning||80||37||97|
|1. Pittsburgh Penguins||80||44||107|
|2. New York Rangers||81||41||95|
|3. Philadelphia Flyers||80||38||91|
|1. Columbus Blue Jackets||80||37||91|
|2. Detroit Red Wings||80||33||91|
|Current NHL Western Conference Playoff Standings|
|1. Colorado Avalanche||80||47||111|
|2. St. Louis Blues||80||43||111|
|3. Chicago Blackhawks||80||40||107|
|1. Anaheim Ducks||80||50||112|
|2. San Jose Sharks||80||39||107|
|3. Los Angeles Kings||81||38||99|
|1. Minnesota Wild||81||35||98|
|2. Dallas Stars||80||35||89|
|3. Phoenix Coyotes||80||30||87|
Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings
There is always plenty of intrigue involved with two Original Six teams locking horns, and that will be the case if the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings meet in the first round.
This is Detroit's first season in the Eastern Conference since making the jump from the West and it is somewhat fitting that Boston could be its initial playoff opponent.
The Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets are currently tied in points, but Columbus holds the tiebreaker since it has more regulation/overtime wins. Boston is in position to win the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best regular-season team, so it will face whichever team finishes lower in the wild-card battle.
There is no doubt that neutral NHL fans are rooting for a Bruins vs. Red Wings clash. Boston and Detroit are two of the top American hockey markets, so NBC would probably love that matchup as well.
To make things even more interesting, Sporting Charts notes that the Red Wings are currently chasing the Bruins' record for consecutive playoff appearances:
The Bruins will be favored if this matchup happens, but the Red Wings have the horses necessary to challenge them.
They have thrived in the face of significant injuries this season, and All-Star center Pavel Datsyuk is back in the fold. Henrik Zetterberg is still out, but Ted Kulfan of The Detroit News reported that he skated on his own this week, so it's possible that he could return as well.
Although most expect either the Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final, the Red Wings definitely have the talent necessary to pull off a huge upset.
If nothing else, it won't be a breezy sweep for Boston if the series ultimately happens.
St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
Most figured that the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks would do battle for Central Division supremacy in the Western Conference this season.
While that has largely been the case, the Colorado Avalanche have thrown a wrench into things. The Avs and Blues are currently tied for first in the division, but Colorado holds the tiebreaker. That means the Blues will have to play the Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs under the new system should things stand pat.
Both the Blues and Hawks are viewed as real threats to win the Stanley Cup, but one of them may be sent packing earlier than expected.
Chicago is the defending champion, but St. Louis is hungry to reach that level, having never won a Stanley Cup in its franchise's history. The Blues may very well be the best overall team in the league, while the Blackhawks are somewhat of a wild card right now.
Superstar forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are nursing injuries, although Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune reports that head coach Joel Quenneville is encouraged by their progress:
Both players are expected to be ready for the playoffs and Quenneville told Tracey Myers of CSNChicago.com he believes the rest they have gotten in recent weeks could prove beneficial when the postseason starts:
I think those guys will be ready; they'll be fresh and excited to play. They've played a lot of big games in big settings and they're accustomed to playing important minutes and playing a long time. They've played a lot of hockey the last year. I think this break with refresh them.
The season series favors St. Louis 3-2, but Chicago has won the past two meetings. The big difference should they meet in the playoffs could be goaltending. Corey Crawford is a Stanley Cup-winning goalie for the Hawks, but Blues goalie Ryan Miller is considered by most to be the better backstop.
Miller had mixed success in the playoffs with the Buffalo Sabres, but he'll be motivated to play his best—especially since a Stanley Cup is a very real possibility.
New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers
The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers have engaged in many memorable showdowns in both the regular season and playoffs over the years.
Another chapter may very well be written in that book if New York and Philly maintain their positioning in the standings. The Rangers and Flyers are second and third, respectively, in the Metropolitan Division, which means they are on a collision course.
Both teams have had some major struggles this year and looked like they may not even reach the playoffs at certain points, but they have persevered.
Because of that, it is only fitting that their paths may cross.
The Rangers and Flyers have split the season series this year, which is indicative of how competitive they have been against each other throughout their respective existences.
According to Eklund of HockeyBuzz.com, these two teams are about as evenly matched as they come:
Either team could move on from this series, but the Rangers have to feel particularly good about their chances. They would have a major advantage in net with Henrik Lundqvist against Steve Mason, and they also have a major catalyst in the form of forward Martin St. Louis.
Although St. Louis' production has been modest, with eight points in 19 games since coming over from the Tampa Bay Lightning, he has 68 points in 63 career playoff games.
That should give New York an edge that it hasn't had in past years during the playoffs, but the Flyers won't go down without a fight.
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