1 Nightmare Matchup for Every NHL Playoff Contender

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2021

1 Nightmare Matchup for Every NHL Playoff Contender

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    It's an unalienable truth about the postseason: You can't win it if you're not in it.

    So, for the 16 teams who entered Monday night's games in position to earn entry to the Stanley Cup playoffs, that's the priority. Finish the season strong, clinch your playoff berth and go from there.

    But it's not all that matters.

    Once the tickets are punched and the brackets are set, rest assured there will be some teams feeling a bit more angst than others based on the opponents they've drawn. Because, after a season of exclusively intra-divisional play, the numbers don't lie.

    Match up with a team you've handled more often than not and it's a clearer path to the second round and beyond. But find yourself sharing the ice with a foe who's topped you in every conceivable metric and expect a few sleepless nights between now and game time.

    The B/R hockey writing team dove headlong into that pool of imminent drama and composed a list of teams that each Cup contender—based on Monday's pre-game standings—least wants to see when the playoff pucks are dropped later this month.

    Click through to see what we've come up with and be sure to drop a thought of your own in the comments.

Central Division

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    Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

    Carolina Hurricanes: Tampa Bay Lightning (because they're the champs)

    OK, we're channeling Ric Flair here: "To be the man, you gotta beat the man."

    And though the Carolina Hurricanes have gone about doing that quite well in the regular season, running up a plus-.500 record against every divisional rival thus far, there's still some ground to cover.

    In order to escape the Central Division battle royale and reach the league's final four, there's a pretty good chance the Canes will have to take out the Lightning. They've won four of seven in regulation and grabbed a point against them in an eighth game, but it'll be a totally different animal in an elimination scenario.

                 

    Tampa Bay Lightning: Florida Panthers (3-3 head-to-head)

    Like Carolina alongside them, the Lightning have fared well enough against each team in the Central this season and they'll enter the tournament with the street cred reserved for defending champions.

    But Tampa Bay hasn't looked like, well, Tampa Bay, when it has played the Florida Panthers.

    In fact, the Lightning had split six games with coach Joel Quenneville's team entering Monday night, and the 3.67 goals per game they've allowed is their highest rate against any Central foe. Florida scored 12 times while winning two of three games from Feb. 11 to 15, but got past three goals just one time in three tries through their most recent meeting on April 17.

    The teams will end the regular season together in suburban Miami on May 8 and 10.

                  

    Florida Panthers: Carolina Hurricanes (2-4-2 head-to-head)

    Let the record show that the Panthers began their season series with a 4-3 OT win over the Hurricanes on Feb. 17 in Raleigh.

    But it hasn't gone so well since then.

    Florida has finished on the correct side of the scoreboard just once in seven subsequent games against Carolina, losing six in a row (four times in regulation) before finally breaking back through with a 4-3 OT win on April 24 at home. Leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau has eight points in those eight games, including three points across the two most recent contests on April 22 and 24. 

               

    Nashville Predators: Carolina Hurricanes (0-5-1 head-to-head)

    Look away, Predators fans.

    To say Nashville has had a devil of a time with Carolina this season would be something of an understatement. In fact, no would-be playoff team has been any more inept against another potential playoff rival than the Predators have been against Carolina.

    Six games thus far have yielded a single point for Nashville, courtesy of a 3-2 OT loss in Raleigh on March 9. Beyond that, it's been a throttling to the tune of seven goals for and 20 goals against, by far the lowest scoring rate the Predators have produced against any of their six Central opponents.

    The teams will finish the season in Nashville on May 8 and 10.

East Division

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Pittsburgh Penguins: Boston Bruins (3-4-1 head-to-head)

    The Penguins have been among the reddest of the league's red-hot team over the past several weeks, climbing from a battle for fourth place into sole possession of first heading into Monday night.

    But they've had a hard time with Boston. 

    The Bruins haven't blown their doors off. In fact, there are three other teams in the division who have averaged more goals per game against Pittsburgh. But Boston's done well enough in the close ones, taking two of three games decided by one goal and winning both of the contests that ended in two-goal margins.

                 

    Washington Capitals: Boston Bruins (3-4 head-to-head)

    Truth be told, the Capitals might be more concerned about a series with the New York Rangers.

    But given the current standings and Boston's eight-point gap over the Blueshirts, it's probably the specter of a best-of-seven with the Bruins that'll have the Capitals coaching staff up nights.

    Boston has not only won four of seven games it has played so far against the Capitals, but it has also filled the nets along the way. The Bruins have scored at least four goals in each of those wins and averaged 3.57 goals per game across the entire series. Brad Marchand is public enemy No. 1 in black and gold, thanks to his 11 points in the four Boston triumphs.

                 

    New York Islanders: Washington Capitals (2-5-1 head-to-head)

    The Islanders have climbed toward the top of the league thanks to their stingy defense, allowing just 2.2 goals per game—good for second in the NHL behind the Vegas Golden Knights.

    But New York's won just twice in eight games against Washington while watching the Capitals put up 24 goals. Washington put up half that total while winning the first three games between the teams, and has since won the past three while recording a pair of shutouts and a 6-3 win.

    Of note, Alex Ovechkin only played in one of those three and was held off the scoresheet. 

                 

    Boston Bruins: Tampa Bay Lightning (playoff series losses in 2017-18, 2019-20)

    As cited earlier, the Bruins are the East Division's boogeyman for the Penguins and Capitals, and they've fared well enough against the Islanders (2-3-2 in seven games) to avoid any cause for alarm. So we'll look a little more long term for Boston.

    Should they successfully navigate their way out of the Eastern fray, it's a fair bet the Bruins won't want to tangle with the Lightning. The defending Stanley Cup champs have unceremoniously bounced them the last two times they've met in the postseason.

    Tampa Bay won a five-game series on the way to the Eastern Conference title series in 2017-18, then repeated the five-game feat in last summer's bubble before advancing to the second Cup in franchise history.

North Division

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    Jason Franson/Associated Press

    Toronto Maple Leafs: Boston Bruins (zero playoff series wins since 1958-59)

    This just in: The Maple Leafs are pretty good. 

    They've been the class of the North Division for most of the season and they climbed to fifth overall in the league on the strength of a five-game winning streak heading into Monday night. They've won at least five games against each of the other six teams in the North and six against the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets—the teams now sitting second and third in the division, respectively.

    But they've not had success against the Boston Bruins come playoff time. The Bruins eliminated Toronto in seven-game, opening-round series in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, and also topped the Maple Leafs in a seven-gamer to end their 2012-13 season. In fact, the team from Ontario's most hockey-mad city hasn't beaten a Boston club in the playoffs since 1958-59—a span of 62 years and six postseason opportunities.

                

    Edmonton Oilers: Toronto Maple Leafs (3-5-1 head-to-head)

    It's quite the conundrum for Edmonton fans.

    They're feeling relatively confident given a 7-2 regular-season mark against the team—the Winnipeg Jets—they're currently seeded to see in the first round, but casting a concerned eye toward the second round and a potential back and forth with the first-place Maple Leafs.

    The first four games between the teams actually weren't so bad, yielding two wins and two losses for the Oilers. But the scars are still fresh from a paradigm-shifting, three-game set at Rogers Place between Feb. 27 and March 3, in which Toronto won three times while outscoring the hosts, 13-1. Yikes. 

                 

    Winnipeg Jets: Edmonton Oilers (2-7 head-to-head)

    Spoiler alert, the Jets haven't fared well with the Oilers this season.

    Though Edmonton would surely welcome a matchup with their neighbors from Manitoba, Winnipeg would likely relive the trauma of the 1980s and '90s, when the Oilers made the Jets their personal whipping post with series wins on the way to each of their five Stanley Cups.

    This season, the Jets have won fewer games (two) against the Oilers than against any other division rival, scoring less than 2.5 goals per game while watching Connor McDavid scorch them for 22 points.

                 

    Montreal Canadiens: Toronto Maple Leafs (2-4-1 head-to-head)

    The Canadiens have been a tough team to read this season.

    They burst from the gate and were among the NHL's elite in the early going, then hit a tailspin that cost their head coach his job and left them battling for a fourth-place standing and its playoff entry.

    They sat comfortably in that spot heading into Monday, but the downside of making the playoffs would be a 1-4 matchup with the front-running Toronto Maple Leafs—a team the Canadiens have beaten just twice in seven games. The Habs were just two points behind third-place Winnipeg, however, and a first-round duel with second-place Edmonton could be better given Montreal's 5-2 mark against the Oilers.

West Division

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Vegas Golden Knights: Minnesota Wild (2-3-1 head-to-head)

    It's been a good season in the Nevada desert.

    The Golden Knights entered Monday night as the No. 1 overall team in the NHL, they'd won the most games (36) and racked up the highest positive goal differential (plus-58) through 50 games.

    But while it's typically been bells and whistles against much of the West Division, coach Peter DeBoer and Co. have been frequently busted against the Minnesota Wild. The Golden Knights have a double-digit goal differential edge against five of the other teams in the division and a plus-2 against the Colorado Avalanche, but they've been held to a 16-16 stalemate against Minnesota. 

                  

    Colorado Avalanche: Vegas Golden Knights (3-3-1 head-to-head)

    Like several elite teams before them, the Colorado Avalanche have had their way in 2020-21.

    They've beaten five of their division rivals at least five times and have a 3-1 edge on the Los Angeles Kings with four games still remaining to close out the season series.

    Vegas has been a different story. The Golden Knights have earned seven of a possible 14 points in seven games between the teams and are the only West team to outscore the Avs, establishing a 17-15 margin. That means Colorado's prolific offense, which averages a league-best 3.49 goals per game, has mustered just 2.14 goals per game through seven meetings. A second-round headline in the making, perhaps.

                  

    Minnesota Wild: St. Louis Blues (2-2-2 head-to-head)

    Funny, you never know where trouble is going to come from.

    Though they've dominated the Golden Knights (four wins in six games) and scored consistently against the Avalanche (3.13 goals per game), the Wild have skidded to mediocrity against the fourth-place St. Louis Blues, winning just twice in six games and allowing more goals per game against them (4.00) than any other team in the division.

    Rookie sensation Kirill Kaprizov has just two goals and an assist against the Blues, though he's accounted for 40 points in 44 games against the rest of the league.

                

    St. Louis Blues: Vegas Golden Knights (2-3-1 head-to-head)

    The good news: St. Louis needn't be concerned with the Los Angeles Kings in the playoffs.

    The Blues have hit all the wrong notes against the Kings in 2020-21, winning just twice in seven games while scoring just 15 goals in the head-to-head series.

    The bad news: They will probably have to deal with the Vegas Golden Knights. And soon.

    St. Louis has won only twice in six games against the West's front-runners and scored just one goal apiece in losses to them on March 13, March 22 and April 5. The Blues will finish the season series with games in Las Vegas on Friday and Saturday, and given the seeding if the playoffs began today, they'd face the Golden Knights in the first round.