Dear Abbey: 2022 NHL Playoffs Matchups You Want to SeeApril 1, 2022
Welcome to another edition of Dear Abbey. I don't give life advice like the real Dear Abby, but I do talk about hockey.
The trade deadline has passed, and we’re in the home stretch of the regular season with a month left to play. Things are getting interesting as the Western Conference teams battle for those two wild-card playoff spots and the Eastern Conference teams jockey for positioning. The teams on the outside of the playoff pictures can play spoilsport, which can be beneficial for the developing prospects to get some NHL experience.
But this edition is about the playoffs.
The way the Stanley Cup Playoffs are currently structured, regional and divisional rivalries are typically played in the first few rounds. This isn’t always ideal since it often leads to some of the best teams being knocked out early on, but it does make for some interesting storylines in the first and second rounds.
This format has been around since 2014, and in that time the San Jose Sharks have faced the Los Angeles Kings twice in the first round and the Vegas Golden Knights once in the first round and once in the second. We’ve seen quite a few iterations of Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins and the memes on Twitter with pens next to pen caps that come along with it.
So this week, we asked members of the B/R community what matchups they would most like to see in the postseason this year. The fans have spoken, and they want some new rivalry action, some tough-guy action and they really want to see the two Florida teams go at it.
Here are five matchups readers would like to see.
Boxing on Broadway
@jeff73883: Rangers-Caps. Let Reaves beat Wilson up.
This was one of the more popular answers. To give some background, last year there was a debacle between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers that resulted in a three-day news story and a statement from the Rangers calling for the removal of George Parros, the head of the NHL’s department of player safety.
Former New York general manager Jeff Gorton and team president John Davidson were also dismissed from their posts, and though the timing was suspect, it was never clear whether or not the two incidents were related. Either way, it was…a lot.
During a post-whistle scrum in a late-season game, Wilson threw a helmetless Artemi Panarin to the ice and was only fined $500,000, which was an incredibly small amount for a repeat offender.
But the Rangers went out over the summer and got tougher. They're now better able to counter Wilson with Ryan Reaves, and it appears as though New Yorkers want to see some revenge.
Wilson has always been an interesting case study because he doesn’t have to fight or play dirty. He’s a talented top-line winger and he’s extremely well liked in the Washington locker room. So well liked, in fact, that some people around the organization have said he could someday become a captain when Alex Ovechkin retires.
But Wilson seems to enjoy fighting. He’s an investor in a D.C.-area boxing gym called BASH Boxing because he enjoys their boxing/cardio interval workouts.
Reaves, on the other hand, is very much what you’d expect from an enforcer: He’s a bottom-six grinder and an excellent fighter.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have also been guilty of trying to get tough enough to counter Wilson and it came at the sacrifice of skill in the lineup. But the Rangers have a good balance of skill and toughness, especially since adding Andrew Copp, Tyler Motte, Frank Vatrano and Justin Braun at the trade deadline.
Regardless of any fights, this would be an entertaining matchup between two Metropolitan Division teams in very different places: The Rangers are trying to end their rebuild, while the Capitals are trying to keep their window of contention open a little longer.
For what it’s worth, Reaves also has an equally cool off-ice investment in a beer company, 7Five Brewing Co. Maybe they can all grab a stout after the playoffs.
A Wild one in the Rockies
@jimjamflimflam: Wild-Avs. They legit hate each other.
Hate is a very strong word for a matchup that has only been played in the postseason three times, especially since the two teams just did business with one another at the trade deadline, with Colorado sending Tyson Jost to Minnesota in exchange for Nico Sturm.
Most professional athletes across all sports will tell you that rivalries are created in the postseason. Defenseman Drew Doughty once told me that the rivalry between the Kings and their Southern California rivals, the Anaheim Ducks, was entirely created by fans.
However, the fans make a difference. The Kings and Ducks played one another for the first and only time in playoff history in 2014. It was an exciting seven-game series that featured an electric atmosphere. There was a solid mix of fans from both sides in both arenas, and Teemu Selanne ended his career to a standing ovation, drawing cheers from fans who had previously always rooted against him.
The following season, Doughty was asked again how he felt about the rivalry. He said it had become an official rivalry because of that heated postseason series.
So to make this Central Division rivalry official, we need it this spring.
Both of these teams have been perennial also-rans in recent years, more or less. Minnesota has made 11 playoff appearances since the club’s first season in 2000-01 but has only advanced past the first round three times.
Colorado was once a juggernaut and has recently been a favorite to hoist the Cup, but the Avs haven’t had great results in the playoffs.
Both of these teams are going for it. Both of them are capable of going deep and will be good for the next few years. This could be the start of something contentious and something exciting.
Getting After it in Alberta
@Zaphgod: Battle for Alberta
This used to be a fantastic postseason rivalry…back in the 1980s. The last time these two teams met after the regular season was in 1991. Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau and, well, most of the two rosters had not yet been born.
Maybe Mike Smith, Edmonton’s 40-year-old goalie, has some memories of that series.
The Oilers have the best player in the world in McDavid but have not been able to build much around him. It’s been a roller coaster of a season in Edmonton, which, let’s be honest, is not uncharacteristic for the franchise. The club fired its coach, Dave Tippett, in February, and replaced him with their AHL coach Jay Woodcroft. The results have been positive, as the Oilers have gone 15-7-2 since the change behind the bench.
The goaltending situation has been better as of late, but Smith and Mikko Koskinen haven’t exactly been the most reliable tandem in hockey, and general manager Ken Holland failed to land a goalie at the trade deadline. But the Anaheim Ducks slid from contention and traded away some top veterans to continue their rebuild and the Vegas Golden Knights are trying to stop their own skid, so the Oilers will (probably) secure a bid.
The Flames are on the upswing. They’re one of the top shot-volume teams at 5-on-5 and they create scoring chances at a high rate at even strength as well, they have a top-10 power play and goalie Jacob Markstrom has the fourth-best save percentage in the league.
Darryl Sutter hockey is not the most exciting brand of hockey. It’s low-event with a lot of cycling, but it’s clearly still effective. The system is the star, and in this case, Sutter might be too.
The story writes itself: He’s from Viking, Alberta, and still operates a cattle ranch there. It’s closer to Edmonton than Calgary, but this is his second stint with the Flames, so the fans love him.
But while the mercurial Sutter can deliver some witty soundbites in the postseason ("Fly at 11" is still often repeated among Los Angeles media members), players can find him grating.
When things are going well, everyone gets on board. But even after the most dominant wins, he can be extremely critical, which is not great for morale and confidence and can cause players to tune him out.
It’s the rising coaching star with the game’s biggest star against a grizzled, two-time Cup-winning veteran coach and a deep group trying to bring prominence to the prairie. This particular Battle of Alberta would not disappoint.
@joelguinand: Bolts and Panthers. It was a damn good series and I’m sure this year it would be even better.
@hialeah1987: Bolts-Cats. It’s time to show Tampa that So Fla rules hockey in Florida now.
This was the most popular matchup from the B/R community. And I agree with @joelguinand; it was a fantastic series last year. This is the Eastern Conference Final we deserve.
The Panthers are averaging 4.06 goals per game. The forward group is exceptionally deep, but they’re also creating offense from the blueline. This team is loaded and playing in front of an elite goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Lightning are still the champs until they aren’t. They are without some of the key role players who helped them win back-to-back Stanley Cups, but that hasn’t held them back because of the high-end talent on the roster, savvy coaching and strong player development.
Tampa Bay and Florida haven’t exactly been neck-and-neck all season, but they’re close. The Lightning are eight points back of the Panthers and would almost certainly need to fall into the wild-card spots to play them in the first round.
The Lightning already have a fervent fanbase in the Tampa Bay area, which happens when you win three Stanley Cups and establish a foothold in the market. But a series like this would help grow the game exponentially throughout the state. New fans, learn-to-play programs and other grassroots outreach are important in non-traditional hockey markets, and the exposure that a playoff series brings would help fuel those efforts on the eastern side of the state and in other parts as well.
The Panthers have never exactly been a marquee franchise, but knocking off Tampa Bay in a conference final could change that.
The Heavyweight Title Bout
@Ryst: Avs-Panthers. The ultimate “Did Giroux pick the right team” matchup
Former Flyers captain Claude Giroux used his no-trade clause to engineer a move to the team he felt he would fit with the best. The Panthers were the winners of the sweepstakes, despite interest from the Avs. So in this hypothetical scenario, after the Cats knock off the Lightning (in seven games, just to maximize the drama), they would take on the Avs.
Things have worked out quite well for Giroux since the trade. He already has five assists in five games with the Panthers, four of them wins (3-1-0). For now, it seems as though he made the right decision.
Colorado has somehow managed to stay dominant throughout the season despite injuries to several top players like Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. But the good news is that MacKinnon returned to the lineup Thursday and talented young defenseman Bowen Byram is on an AHL conditioning stint, so there is hope that he can return after a series of head injuries.
One could make the argument that these are the top two teams in the league right now, though you could certainly include the Carolina Hurricanes in the discussion. These are probably the two top contenders for the Cup Final, though, and the rosters are built to withstand several rounds of intense playoff hockey.
As for Giroux, he’s a pending unrestricted free agent, so he'll have another decision to make following the season. The only decisions he’ll be worried about in a championship series are the ones on the ice, but it’s still a fun storyline.