10 Unique Stanley Cup Matchups We'd Love to See This Season

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2021

10 Unique Stanley Cup Matchups We'd Love to See This Season

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    It's a hockey season unlike any other.

    Thanks to a pandemic and its domestic impacts in Canada and the United States, the NHL was forced to think on its feet to simply get the 2020-21 schedule finalized and underway.

    Because travel between the countries has been slowed to a standstill, the league sequestered the seven Canadian teams into their own North Division while geographically realigning the remaining three clusters of U.S.-based teams and setting forth on a regular season of exclusively divisional play.

    Playoff competition will also be division-based for the first two rounds, with the top four teams in each making the tournament and facing off in series matching seeds No. 1 and No. 4 in one and No. 2 and No. 3 in the other. Once the four postseason division champions are determined, they will be reseeded from No. 1 to No. 4 and matched up again for a pair of series that will determine the Stanley Cup final.

    And that's where it gets interesting.

    The reconfigured divisions and the plan to reseed for the playoff semifinals paves the way for championship-round matchups that never would have been possible under the previous alignment.

    That's all it took for the B/R hockey team to reconvene to compile a list of 10 unique series that may come about this summer. We'll concede up front that some of the teams are far more likely to be in the title mix than others, so many of the selections are suggested primarily for entertainment purposes.

    Take a look at the ideas we came up with and hit us with some of your own suggestions in the comments section.

The Best in Show Series: Colorado Avalanche vs. Edmonton Oilers

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    Here's a test.

    Gather your best hockey fan friends and ask them to name, team allegiances aside, the NHL's best player.

    We'll go out on a limb and guess they said either Nathan MacKinnon or Connor McDavid.

    The pair of former No. 1 overall draft picks—MacKinnon in 2013 to the Colorado Avalanche and McDavid two years later to the Edmonton Oilers—have gone about dominating the league since their respective arrivals, combining for a Calder Trophy, a Lady Byng Trophy, a Hart Trophy and two league scoring titles.

    What neither of them has done, however, is play for a Stanley Cup.

    Because the Avs and Oilers are both in the Western Conference, there's no chance the one-on-one matchup could ever occur in a typical year with a championship on the line.

    But anything's possible in 2020-21. So while the idea that last season's third- and ninth-best teams (in terms of standings points) could reach the Cup final is a stretch, it would be a definitive way to settle the argument.

The Capital Cities Series: Ottawa Senators vs. Washington Capitals

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    OK, while the MacKinnon/McDavid match has at least some realistic chance of occurring this season, there's probably no one outside of the world's most optimistic Ottawa Senators fan that sees this one coming.

    But hey, why not get some friendly international banter?

    Should Matt Murray rekindle his old Pittsburgh Penguins magic and get the Senators on the fast-track to relevance, it would be fun if they reached the final and saw their fellow capital city there as well.

    Alex Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals walked that hallowed championship ground just two-and-a-half years ago in capturing the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. But beating the Vegas Golden Knights didn't conjure up nearly the sort of competitive fire that a legit country vs. country duel could provide.

    Just picture it: The Canadian prime minister lays a few dozen Tim Horton donuts against some burgers and dogs, while the American president counters with a keg of Budweiser against a case or two of Labatt.

    Now that's a series.

The Football Hero Series: Dallas Stars vs. Philadelphia Flyers

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    There may not be a more bitter NFL rivalry than the one between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles.

    In fact, wearing a silver and blue uniform into Lincoln Financial Field or a green and white hat at AT&T Stadium is guaranteed to generate a particularly intense response from the respective hometown crowds.

    But would it yield a similar enmity with a Stanley Cup on the line?

    The Dallas Stars made it to the brink of a championship last season before losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the Philadelphia Flyers were the top seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs before an upset loss to the New York Islanders.

    The franchises did meet twice in early-round playoff settings in 1972-73 and 1979-80—both won by the Flyers—but that was back when the Stars were still in Minnesota and not nearly as high on the public enemy list as a team bearing the word "Dallas" on their sweaters would be on Broad Street these days.

The North-South Series: Edmonton Oilers vs. Florida Panthers

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    Here's one for the geography buffs in the crowd.

    You may not have realized that Edmonton Oilers—at just more than 600 miles from the U.S. border and 2,500 or so from the North Pole—are the northernmost franchise in the NHL.

    On the flip side, the Florida Panthers are their counterparts in the league's southernmost locale, residing roughly 200 miles from Mallory Square in Key West and about 1,700 miles from the equator.

    Incidentally, their respective home rinks are 3,000 miles apart, meaning the Oilers are closer to the North Pole and the Panthers are closer to the equator than the teams are to one another.

    The Oilers were ninth overall in the league in standings points last season before a qualifying-round elimination in the summer, while the Panthers were five points off Edmonton's pace and shared a similar qualifying fate in a four-game loss to the New York Islanders.

    However, any team with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl is capable of making a run this time around, while Florida boasts a two-time Vezina Trophy winner anxious to return to form in Sergei Bobrovsky. So if both those things happen, we'll have our frequent flyer vouchers ready to go.

    Gas up the planes, and let's drop the puck.

The Original Six Series: Boston Bruins vs. Montreal Canadiens

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    It's the gold standard of NHL rivalries.

    The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens have played one another more times than any two teams in league history, totaling 927 meetings across regular seasons and playoffs.

    They have, in fact, faced off in 34 separate postseason series—seven with the Stanley Cup on the line—and have gone to a series-deciding Game 7 no fewer than nine times.

    But unless they both manage to get to at least the final four this year, they won't meet at all.

    And if we've got to wait anyway, why not make the delay worthwhile?

    The Bruins were the best regular-season team in the league in 2019-20 before falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs, while the Canadiens sneaked in as a 12th seed and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers.

    So it's not inconceivable that a 35th encounter could happen in a championship setting in 2021.

    P.S. Want to make it even more interesting? Remind a Bruins fan they're 0-7 against Montreal in the final. Then duck.

The Pajama Boy Series: New York Islanders vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    While the Canadiens and Bruins have been at each other's throats for years, this one began with one tweet.

    Though John Tavares was born and raised in the Toronto suburbs, he was drafted first overall by the New York Islanders in 2009 and served there admirably for nine seasons, including five as team captain.

    But when the opportunity to go back home arrived, he took it. And earned the wrath of a fanbase.

    Tavares signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs that was made official on July 1, 2018, and he greeted the news with a Twitter picture showing him as a youngster nestled in a bed with logoed pillows and blankets. Alongside the pic was the message, "Not everyday you can live a childhood dream."

    Needless to say, Islanders fans don't share the sentiment.

    Spurned by a player they had hoped would trigger a return to elite status, they have mocked the picture and branded Tavares as "Pajama Boy" on his subsequent trips back to Long Island. Given, too, that the Isles got within a series of the Stanley Cup Final without him in 2019-20—and the Maple Leafs are a popular dark-horse pick to make a deep playoff run—imagine the venom that might flow if this one comes to pass.

The QEW Series: Buffalo Sabres vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Just when you think we've exhausted the geography angle, there's more.

    Unless you live in Western New York or Southern Ontario, you may not realize the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs are separated by just 99.2 miles, primarily on a highway named Queen Elizabeth Way.

    Or, if you're a local, the QEW.

    The multilane thoroughfare has been a conduit for one of the league's most intense fanbase rivalries since the Sabres were brought in via expansion in 1970. They shared space in the old Adams Division for many years before a league realignment, and they were reconnected in the modern-day Atlantic Division.

    The Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup three years before the Sabres arrived but have not since.

    They won't play at all this year in the regular season, though they are far closer geographically than most of the teams in each of the redrawn divisions.

    Their lone playoff meeting came in the 1998-99 Eastern Conference Final and was won by the Sabres in five games before Buffalo advanced to a six-game loss to the Dallas Stars. Given the territory and populations targeted by both franchises, it would be quite an event to have them meet again with an NHL title on the line.

    Sure, the Cup's nice. But if the winner gets to fly their flag on the Peace Bridge, it's on.

The Relocation Series: Dallas Stars vs. Minnesota Wild

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    We could have gone a few different ways with this one.

    Given the sometimes transient nature of NHL franchises, there are several in existence these days that actually began with residence in another city.

    The Calgary Flames started in Atlanta. The Carolina Hurricanes were once the Hartford Whalers.

    And the New Jersey Devils only arrived to the Garden State after incarnations as the Kansas City Scouts and the Colorado Rockies.

    When it came to relocation matchups that would generate the most heat, though, there were only two.

    A duel between today's Winnipeg Jets and Arizona Coyotes would match two versions of the Jets franchise—one that began in Winnipeg in the old WHA and made its way to Phoenix in the mid-1990s and the other that relocated back to Manitoba in 2011 after starting in Atlanta in 1999.

    But instead we went with the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild for a showdown between the team that left Minneapolis-St. Paul and began playing in Texas with a modified name in 1993 and the expansion franchise that brought hockey back to the Twin Cities in 2000.

    There's just something about keeping the "Stars" tag that makes it slightly more real for the Minnesotans in the crowd, and while the teams met in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs after the 2015-16 season, it would be a more emotional scrum in a Stanley Cup setting.

The Slump Buster Series (Winners): Philadelphia Flyers vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    There's something about winning the Stanley Cup that makes you want to do it again.

    Sooner rather than later.

    But sometimes it becomes later rather than sooner.

    Exhibit A: The Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers.

    Among franchises that have won at least one Cup, the Leafs and Flyers are far ahead of the pack when it comes to the amount of time it's been since the most recent title parade ended.

    For Philadelphia, it was 1975 when the Flyers won the second of their two straight championships with a six-game defeat of the Buffalo Sabres. They have reached the final six more times since—in 1976, 1980, 1985, 1987, 1997 and 2010—but haven't won again.

    As for the Maple Leafs, it was 1967 when they celebrated the 50th year of the NHL in Toronto with the 13th Stanley Cup in franchise history. But unlike the Flyers, they've never made it back to the brink.

    The teams have met six times in the playoffs, with Philadelphia winning five times, including a four-game quarterfinal sweep on the way to the aforementioned second Cup in 1975.

    This season could yield a return bout in the final thanks to the Flyers' standing as the No. 1 Eastern Conference playoff seed last season and the Maple Leafs' momentum as an offensive juggernaut.

    However it winds up, the result would make at least some grey-haired fans very happy.

The Slump Buster Series (Non-Winners): Buffalo Sabres vs. Vancouver Canucks

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Turns out the waiting for another Stanley Cup may only be the second-hardest part.

    Because it's nothing like the angst of waiting for the first one.

    Among the non-champions in today's NHL, the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks share the longest active dearth of titles—an even 50 years since they entered as dual expansion teams in 1970.

    The Sabres won a spin of a lottery wheel for the right to select Gilbert Perreault first overall in 1970 and rode the nifty center to immediate success, including a Cup final appearance against the Philadelphia Flyers in 1975. They lost in six games, however, and have only returned once for a loss to the Dallas Stars in 1999.

    Vancouver, meanwhile, was largely irrelevant for the first part of its NHL life before a run to the finals for a sweep by the New York Islanders in 1982. Two more appearances have yielded two more losses, both in Game 7s, to the New York Rangers in 1994 and the Boston Bruins in 2011.

    And while it's unlikely both would make another run to the final this year, given that the Sabres haven't been to the postseason in nine seasons, there's wide consensus that they are both loaded with youthful talent. Vancouver ended a four-year playoff absence with a push to the second round last season, while Buffalo signed coveted free agent Taylor Hall to ride shotgun to former No. 2 overall pick (2015) Jack Eichel.

    If it happens, it'll make one heck of a 51st birthday present.