Few things in sports are more exciting than playoff hockey, so with just a handful of games remaining for each team in the 2014-15 regular season, most observers are already looking ahead to the highly anticipated postseason.
There are still some positions up for grabs and the potential for seeding to change, but the potential matchups are salivating, to say the least. The NHL changed the playoff format last year to place more emphasis on divisional rivalries in the opening rounds, and that could make for some heated series.
With the season reaching its latter stages, here is a look at the current standings and playoff matchups that could potentially hold up over the next week.
Current Playoff Standings
|NHL Eastern Conference Standings|
|2||Tampa Bay Lightning||A||104||48||24||8||2|
|1||New York Rangers||M||107||50||21||7||4|
|3||New York Islanders||M||98||46||27||6||3|
|2||Detroit Red Wings||A||95||41||25||13||3|
|In the Hunt|
|NHL Western Conference Standings|
|1||St. Louis Blues||C||105||49||23||7||3|
|2||Los Angeles Kings||P||92||39||25||14||4|
|In the Hunt|
|4||San Jose Sharks||P||87||39||31||9||3|
Current Playoff Matchups
|NHL Eastern Conference Playoff Matchups|
|Series||Away Team||Home Team|
|W1 vs. A1||Pittsburgh Penguins||Montreal Canadiens|
|A3 vs. A2||Boston Bruins||Tampa Bay Lightning|
|W2 vs. M1||Detroit Red Wings||New York Rangers|
|M3 vs. M2||New York Islanders||Washington Capitals|
|NHL Western Conference Playoff Matchups|
|Series||Away Team||Home Team|
|W1 vs. C1||Minnesota Wild||St. Louis Blues|
|C3 vs. C2||Chicago Blackhawks||Nashville Predators|
|W2 vs. P1||Los Angeles Kings||Anaheim Ducks|
|P3 vs. P2||Calgary Flames||Vancouver Canucks|
Top Matchups to Watch
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens
With superstar forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the fold, the Pittsburgh Penguins are expected to contend for the Stanley Cup on a yearly basis. The Pens have been mired by inconsistency this season, however, which means they may have to settle for a wild-card berth, if they even make the playoffs at all.
The Penguins would undoubtedly be a dangerous wild-card team, but a first-round meeting with the Montreal Canadiens would be less than ideal. The Habs have been among the best teams in the NHL this season, and they seemingly have all the pieces needed to make a run.
Goaltender Carey Price has arguably been the best player at his position this season, and he could be the key to Montreal's postseason success. Despite Pittsburgh's offensive firepower, Eric Hagman of 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh sees the Canadiens as a matchup problem due to Price's excellence:
Based on the Penguins' Jekyll-and-Hyde nature, though, they may struggle regardless of who they play. Defenseman Kris Letang recently pointed out after a loss to the St. Louis Blues that Pittsburgh can't seem to put it all together for an entire game, according to Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"We don't play a 60-minute game," Letang said. "We have a good span in the game when we control the game and win our battles, control the play. But sometimes (if) you don't keep the same energy (against) a team like St. Louis, they're going to come back."
The Penguins may ultimately be good enough to make the playoffs based on talent alone, but it will take much more than that to have success when the games matter most.
Pittsburgh is certainly a team that can go on a deep run no matter where it is seeded, but getting past a team like Montreal would be a massive hurdle.
Los Angeles Kings vs. Anaheim Ducks
The Los Angeles Kings have a penchant for going all the way in the playoffs regardless of their seeding, and that could prove troublesome for the division-rival Anaheim Ducks if they meet in the opening round.
As things currently stand, the Kings are the final wild-card team in the Western Conference, which means they would take on the conference's best team in the form of Anaheim. Considering what happened last year, that may be the Ducks' worst nightmare.
En route to hoisting the Stanley Cup, L.A. knocked off Anaheim in seven games in the Western Conference semifinals. Both teams are pretty similar this year, and questions remain if the Ducks are capable of getting the job done come playoff time.
All things being equal, Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau would rather not have to deal with the Kings, according to NHL.com's Curtis Zupke:
With that said, he has little doubt that Anaheim's chief rival will be among the eight teams that qualify for the playoffs in the Western Conference, per Luke Fox of Sportsnet.
"They're going to make it," Boudreau said. "So it was a moot point. I gotta worry about my team. I got enough trouble just concentrating about my group. I can't worry if L.A.'s going to make it or Winnipeg's going to make it or whoever's going to make it. Whatever happens, happens."
With the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler up front, the Ducks are talented enough to skate with anyone. The Kings have an intangible factor that allows them to thrive come playoff time, though, along with the heroics of goalie Jonathan Quick.
If this series comes to fruition, then the winner could very well win it all, which is an extremely exciting prospect for hockey fans.
New York Islanders vs. Washington Capitals
The NHL playoffs are known for tight checking and defense, but if the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals meet in the first round, then that style may take a backseat to run-and-gun offense.
There is no question that the Caps and Isles are two of the most exciting teams in hockey, as they are each buoyed by legitimate superstars. The Capitals lean heavily on winger Alexander Ovechkin, while the Islanders are anchored by center John Tavares.
Both players have been near the top of the scoring race all season long, and they are capable of taking over games at any time. With that in mind, a series between Washington and New York would have the potential to be something truly special.
It would be made even more interesting by the fact that these two franchises have traversed very different paths in recent years. The Islanders have largely struggled, while the Capitals are perennial contenders, according to Chuck Gormley of CSNWashington.com:
It is fair to question if either team has what it takes to go all the way due to defensive and goaltending deficiencies, but they can certainly be dangerous when they are firing on all cylinders offensively.
Seeing a deviation from the norm is always a treat for hockey fans, and that is exactly what they will get if the Caps and Isles hold steady between now and the conclusion of the regular season.
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