Let’s breakdown the matchups if the playoffs started today, in all three formats.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
This matchup may present a unique challenge for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Most people would anticipate that all the deadline acquisitions for the Blue Jackets would be living up to the expectations by the time they reach the playoffs. This may be the last gasp effort to attract Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin to stay in Columbus. If Columbus could pull off the upset, they just may swing the Free Agents back to the Ohio Valley. The biggest obstacle for the Blue Jackets will be able to match the production on the bottom 6. Tampa has consistently rolled all four lines all season long. No forward on the Lightning roster has averaged more than 20 minutes per game.
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Look away Leafs fans because this train crash is happening again. The big question remains; Can the Maple Leafs flip the script? The answer to that question will fall squarely on the Toronto blue line. Frederik Andersen will be amongst the candidates vying for Vezina consideration, and he deserves all the praise that will be thrown on him. What makes Andersen stand out is the insane amount of shots that he faces on a nightly basis. If the Maple Leafs cannot limit the shots, it is likely that Freddy gets burned out by the end of this series and inevitably lets in a soft goal. The key to this series on the Boston side will be their ability to match speed with Toronto. Assuming that David Pastrnak is healthy, we all know what to expect from the top unit with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. The questions will come from the bottom half of their forward units. Charlie Coyle has proven to be a good fit so far, but how will he stack up against Mitch Marner and John Tavares.
Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes
This matchup has the potential to be an exciting one. Who isn’t excited to see what kind of creative celebrations Rod Brind’Amour‘s team comes up with. Of course, that is all reliant on their ability to win a game. My biggest concern with the Hurricanes is their lack of scoring depth. More than 30% of their goals have come from their top unit. Also, the recent injury to Calvin de Haan could be cause for concern. Special Teams could play a key part in a divisional series, as well. Carolina ranks 20th in Power Play and 6th in Penalty Kill, while Washington ranks 10th in Power Play and 22nd in Penalty Kill. The goaltender matchup heavily favors the Capitals. Todd Reirden‘s group should be able to feast on the Hurricanes, who have not made a playoff appearance since 2008-09.
New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Barry Trotz vs. Mike Sullivan has been a recurring theme since Sullivan joined the Penguins. This may not be the high-powered matchup that the Penguins and Capitals usually offer, but New York offers a different challenge to the Pens. The Isles play a very smothering, in your face defense, that takes away time and space to mitigate opponents’ speed. Many people will point to the Islanders lack of top line talent, and I always say that while they may not have a true top line, they may have the 4 best 3rd lines in hockey. Every line they roll out can hit and play strong on the forecheck. Trotz’ team is the hardest working team in hockey, and I don’t think there is an argument to be made against it. Since the trade deadline, Pittsburgh has had an identity overhaul. They have a renewed commitment to team defense. Much of this is due to the injuries they had on their blue line, but if they can maintain this discipline through the playoffs, they could be a tough out. The goaltending in this matchup may be the most unique in the playoffs. Both net-minders have scars on their resume, but their recent success may present a great duel for fans.
San Jose Sharks vs. Arizona Coyotes
The San Jose Sharks success may not surprise a lot of people, but considering the injuries they have faced, it is quite surprising that they are leading the Western Conference. Many of their top producers have missed significant time. The other thing that makes the Sharks success a mystery is their goaltending play, not in a good way either. Martin Jones has a .900 SV% and a 2.83 GAA, while Aaron Dell has a .889 SV% and 3.06 GAA. The special teams matchup in this series could be a make or break scenario for either team. The Coyotes have a franchise-record 15 short-handed goals this season and rank 2nd in Penalty Kill. The biggest concern for Arizona fans should be their lack of scoring. They rank 27th in goals with 189 on the season, but even scoring so few goals, they still only have a -7 goal differential. That tells me that Rick Tocchet‘s crew is willing to play team defense.
Calgary Flames vs. Vegas Golden Knights
This may end up being the hardest matchup to predict. These teams matchup so perfectly on paper. The top 6 for both of these teams can take over a game. Both teams have defenseman that can activate and spark the offense. Both have goaltenders that can swing the tide of a game. Both teams have an underdog mentality that motivates them. If special teams becomes a factor, Calgary could really swing the momentum. The Flames lead the NHL with 16 short-handed goals. Calgary has the 9th ranked Power Play, while Vegas boasts the 7th ranked Penalty Kill.
Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues
I don’t think many of us had this penciled in on January 1st, when the Blues occupied last place in the Western Conference. Enter Jordan Binnington. All the young goaltender has done was go 16-4-1 with a .928SV% and 1.81 GAA. He may not be the sole reason that the Blues are back in the playoff conversation, but he is an integral part of it. If I were a hockey writer with a vote, I would be willing to put his name on my Hart Ballot. The Jets are another team that is succeeding in spite of their injuries. Dustin Byfuglien and Nikolaj Ehlers have both missed significant time with injuries, and Patrick Laine had his worst scoring drought of his young career. Through all of that, the Jets are still one of the highest scoring teams in the league. Maybe we can stop overlooking Blake Wheeler when we talk about the best captains in the league now.
Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars
If you were waiting for the matchup that featured two goaltenders standing on their head and taking the spotlight, this is the series that you were waiting to read about. This matchup features the defending Vezina Trophy winner going against the likely Vezina Trophy winner. Ben Bishop has been on an unprecedented run over the past two weeks. He set a Stars record for time since giving up a goal at over 230 minutes. In 40 games this season, he has a .932 SV% and 2.08 GAA. Pekka Rinne has been steady in his own right. He has a .912 SV% and 2.54 GAA.
Conferences Seeded 1-8
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
We see the same matchup that appears in the current format.
Boston Bruins vs. Carolina Hurricanes
This would be a rivalry matchup of sorts, Carolina Hurricanes vs. Don Cherry‘s old club. Okay, that may be harder to market than the current divisional format. In this format, it may be harder for teams like the Bruins to muster the passion for each game. I know that it’s the playoffs and they should be ready to play regardless, but it is hard to hype such a one-sided series.
Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Okay, so everyone wins in this matchup. The NHL gets the best rivalry in hockey and the detractors get seeded playoff bouts. I don’t have to write much of a preview for this series. Just go back and watch the last 3 playoffs. The script will be the same in this series, except maybe the Penguins have enough physicality to match Washington this time around.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. New York Islanders
The Matt Martin revenge series that we are all hoping for. Oh, this series may have some added gusto for that Tavares guy, as well. This matchup would definitely be must watch TV. The chants and the scrums would add a bit of extra flare. Although, I don’t know if the Islanders fans have enough Tavares jerseys to burn for an entire series.
San Jose Sharks vs. Arizona Coyotes
This would be the same matchup as the current format.
Calgary Flames vs. St. Louis Blues
This would be a unique matchup. Although many of us would have envisioned the roles being reversed at the beginning of the season. It would be interesting to see how Bill Peters tried to match his lines against St. Louis, who has a decided advantage at the center ice position. The counter to that would be watching how St. Louis matches with Calgary’s speed.
Winnipeg Jets vs. Dallas Stars
Another divisional matchup to appease the NHL here. At least we get to watch the ongoing battle between Jamie Benn and Mark Scheifele in the last off the ice challenge. The biggest obstacle for the Jets will be whether Connor Hellebuyck can go save for save with Ben Bishop.
Nashville Predators vs. Vegas Golden Knights
The battle for daddy’s attention between the Subban brothers. Okay, so we would suspect that only one of the brothers would get any attention in this series. I suspect this series would hinge on the deadline additions of both teams. Mark Stone has been stellar since joining the Knights. Wayne Simmonds and Brian Boyle add some grit and grind in front of the crease that could cause problems for Marc-Andre Fleury.
League Seeded 1-16
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. St. Louis Blues
Everything gets kinda turned inside out with this format. The matchups don’t really get much easier for the Bolts, and the added travel would only add to the burdens. It would be fun to see one of the most defensively structured teams play against an offensive juggernaut like Tampa though.
San Jose Sharks vs. Dallas Stars
This is another matchup that doesn’t do the favored team any favors. I still believe the Sharks would be heavy favorites, but they actually play a better team than they would in the previous formats. The interesting part of this matchup would be Martin Jones. If he cannot make enough saves to keep up with Ben Bishop, then this matchup could be the upset of the tournament.
Calgary Flames vs. Montreal Canadiens
This cross-country battle would actually be amazing to witness. Young stars on both squads and veteran net-minders would definitely be a selling point for this series. We have learned not to write Carey Price off. He certainly has the potential to steal this series, especially if Mike Smith regresses or David Rittich shows his inexperience on a big stage.
Boston Bruins vs. Vegas Golden Knights
This is where this format gets complicated. I have always claimed that it was harder for east coast teams to travel west due to the time change. I mean a 7:00 puck drop on the west is 10:00 to an east coast body. When you go through this time change three times in a short period of time, it is bound to have an effect. Even through all that though, I think Boston has a distinctive advantage in this series.
Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Now here is a matchup that I can get hyped for. A rematch of last season’s epic collapse by the Blue Jackets. There would be no shortage of attention on this matchup that features 6 pending free agents for the Jackets.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Oh, so this is why all the Leafs fans on my Twitter timeline are lobbying for a format change. The bonus to this matchup would be the rants on Hockey Night in Canada about the Hurricanes. I would lobby for the Canes to have custom warmup jerseys made that looked like one of Don Cherry‘s suits.
New York Islanders vs. Nashville Predators
The Barry Trotz revenge series? Ok, so most Predators fans probably don’t remember that he was their head coach. The other thing that people may not realize is that the Islanders could lose another captain to free agency. This matchup could generate buzz as the best goaltender duel in the opening round.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Winnipeg Jets
Many of my colleagues here at Puck 77 could tell you how gut-wrenching this matchup would be for me. These two teams are 1 & 2 in my heart. It would be an emotional roller coaster for me to have to watch one of them lose in the first round. Personal feelings aside, this would be an amazingly competitive series. Both teams have a blend of size and skill with goaltenders that can steal you a game or two.
Which Format Do You Like?
So there is how the playoffs would line up featuring the three most touted playoff formats. Which one do you favor and which matchup stands out? Let me know in the comments section.
stats provided by nhl.com and hockey-reference.com