There’s nothing better than the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s the ultimate test of a champion, requiring a team to grind out 16 wins before being awarded the most impressive trophy in sports.
Today’s NHL is ultra competitive with parity like never before. Every team that could be considered a favorite has struggled at one point or another throughout this season. Reigning champs L.A. have won two cups in the last three years, yet have struggled through most of the season. They have shown fits of dominance and could easily find their playoff gear, but whether they'll make it is still up in the air. Chicago has also impressed with two cup wins in the past four years. They’ve looked stronger than L.A. for most of the season but will be without injured star Patrick Kane until mid-May.
There are plenty of upstart teams looking to establish themselves as legitimate contenders. While former powerhouse Boston languishes on the playoff bubble, the Islanders, Lightning, and Canadiens are the new faces of the East. In the West, Nashville, St. Louis, and Anaheim have made their case as the kings of the conference, with a stranglehold on the top three spots all season long. Yet, only Anaheim has a won a cup, and that was eight years ago.
You can never count out talented teams like Pittsburgh and Washington, and we haven’t even mentioned last year's Stanley Cup runner-up, the New York Rangers. It really feels impossible to predict.
This playoff will see rivalries old and new. Boston and Montreal have hated each other forever, with each playoff clash adding to the history. St. Louis and Chicago have a fair amount of history as well. And of course, Crosby and Ovechkin is a matchup everyone loves to watch.
As great as the playoffs are, nothing stings more than seeing your team eliminated. And nothing garners more hate than the dastardly team that did the deed. As a Vancouver fan myself, I’ll never forgive the Bruins for 2011, which automatically makes me sympathetic to the Habs. The Kings and Blackhawks have won so many rounds in the past four years they’ve created a host of enemies.
When the dust settles on this year’s postseason, we’ll have seen 15 brutal battles. Old rivalries will write another chapter, and new ones will be born. One thing's for sure, it’ll be a heck of a ride.
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9 Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
Winnipeg fans love their Jets. How cruel it was to pull Bobby Hull’s former team away from a traditional Canadian market, only to see it struggle in the Arizona desert. How wonderful it was to see the NHL return to a place that truly appreciates hockey (and doesn’t have much else going on)? After three exciting seasons of NHL hockey, the novelty is wearing off and this team needs the playoffs.
The team is very easy to like. The perpetual underdogs with heart. They don’t rely on star players, and the locker room didn’t take kindly to Evander Kane’s attitude. Their GM waited a lifetime to make a player for player trade, and when he finally did, it was the biggest of the year. They could have a lot of fans outside their market rooting for them.
The Wild also know the sting of losing a team and the joy of getting it back. Minnesota has always been Canada’s adopted state. With their rich hockey history (collegiate), geography and cold winters, they feel very similar to Winnipeg.
The Wild were poised for great things with Suter and Parise but ran into problems for most of this season. They’ve turned things around, thanks to journeyman Devan Dubnyk's heroic goaltending and are currently in a playoff spot, though it’s a dogfight for the last few spots.
The underdog battle could be a sleeper hit this postseason. The only thing is, both teams will likely occupy wild card spots, so this matchup seemingly can only happen in the conference finals.
8 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings
Has the student become the master? Yzerman showed everyone how to properly transition from player to GM and Detroit proved their elite development extends to GM training. Yzerman took an apprenticeship role in Detroit, learning from the best before moving on to helm his own ship. It paid off, as he has quickly transformed the Lightning into a serious contender. His management of the Martin St. Louis situation was masterful. Acquiring the gritty Callahan in the deal also led to the signings of useful Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman. His savvy drafting is very Wing-like, finding diamonds to round out the offense behind inherited star Stamkos. Tampa is in a great position at the top of their conference with room to grow.
Detroit is nearing the end of their Datsyuk/Zetterberg cycle, and would love one more run with the two aging superstars. As you would expect, Detroit has the next batch of stars ready to take over, as youngsters Tatar and Nyquist have already found productive roles on the team.
This series could produce some beautiful hockey, relying on skill over grit. If these two lock horns, get ready for plenty of highlight-reel plays every game.
7 Los Angeles Kings vs. Anaheim Ducks
L.A. crushed Anaheim’s playoff hopes in a decisive Game 7 win after a hard-fought series. A year later, with Anaheim on the rise and L.A. struggling, the Ducks would relish a rematch. The Ducks' addition of Ryan Kesler is a massive improvement down the middle. As a Canuck, Kesler produced a heroic performance in the 2011 playoffs, almost singlehandedly beating the Predators. Playing behind one of the top duos in the NHL, Kesler could be a secret weapon.
The best part is that we could easily see this Freeway Face-Off in the first round!
6 Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames
We're overdue for this one.
These two surprised everyone in the first half of the season. Both were expected to rebuild and suffer through a mediocre year, with the most excitement coming from which pick they get in 2015’s deep draft. Instead of that, they shot out of the gate, holding playoff positions and playing exciting hockey. Calgary dropped off to where people expected, but they kept on surprising, to currently sit two points back of the Canucks, and two points ahead of Los Angeles (who have a game in hand) in the Pacific Division.
The two Canadian clubs are evenly matched and put on a very entertaining show with their January meeting. End to end action, plenty of drama and rough stuff teased a renewal to their old rivalry.
5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Islanders
After far too many years of mediocrity, the Islanders have finally figured it out. An exciting series loss to the Penguins two years ago was an important and exciting step for the franchise. The Islanders missed the playoffs last year, so a rematch would be two years in the making.
Battling the Penguins all season long in the Metropolitan division and currently sitting two points ahead is a great feather in the cap of a team looking to take the next step. A playoff win against the Pens would be much needed vindication for a team seeking legitimacy.
The Islanders have gotten the best of the regular season series so far, setting the stage for an exciting final matchup in the second to last regular season game. The last time the Islanders won a playoff series was over Mario Lemieux's Penguins in 1993, with David Volek's Game 7 overtime goal. How fitting would it be if they had to go through Pittsburgh again?
4 New York Rangers vs New York Islanders
Finally the hockey universe has aligned and the New York teams are competitive at the same time. The Rangers have their best squad since ‘94 (coincidentally the last time these two met in the playoffs) and are itching to get back to the Finals. The Isles seem to have turned the page on the downswing that lasted far, far too long. Having to watch the Ranger$ buy up free agents while the Isles consistently dealt with ownership issues had to fuel the fire.
The Isles are lovable underdogs with an entertaining style. John Tavares is a likable star who always kept his chin up during his team's darkest years. Contrast this with the Rangers top sniper Rick Nash, who couldn’t take the losing in Columbus and asked to leave. Martin St. Louis is a similar star forward who demanded a trade from his previous team.
Elevating this rivalry is the incredible atmosphere of both arenas (two of the last three to not be named after corporate sponsors). MSG is always special but the Islander fans have gained a crazy reputation in a short time. Nassau Coliseum is an old school arena with steep seating that puts the fans on top of the action. It's also the farewell season for Nassau and one last battle with the Rangers would be a great sendoff. Add to this the years of pent up frustration ready to explode, and it should be more than electric.
3 St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks
When you’ve eliminated as many teams from the playoffs as Chicago recently has, you gain enemies fast. But this is a rivalry that goes back much further. These two have faced off in the postseason 11 times already, with Chicago taking eight of those. St. Louis would love to prove that they have truly arrived as a legitimate contender, and will most likely have to go through Chicago to win their first Cup. The Blues' most recent playoff run was thwarted by Chicago last postseason. With the Blues up 2-0 in their series, the ‘Hawks stormed back to win it in six, guaranteeing a rivalry.
Both teams are a frightening matchup. The Blues are loaded up and down the lineup, don’t rely on stars, and play a punishing style suitable for the playoffs. Chicago’s depth is equally impressive, boasting hard-working superstars like Toews, Hossa, and Keith, and a recent playoff dominance.
If these two butt heads fans can expect a ferocious battle between two of the league’s best.
2 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, once the kings of the NHL, have fallen slightly off the map. Crosby’s injuries and Ovechkin’s utter lack of playoff success have allowed other teams to take the spotlight. But with Pittsburgh’s new-found depth and Ovechkin’s positive play with new coach Barry Trotz, they have transitioned into exciting dark horses. The core that won Pittsburgh’s last Stanley Cup is intact and should actually be better as they begin to enter their primes. Additions like David Perron and Patric Hornqvist have given the Pens their deepest forward lines in years.
On the Washington side of things, missing the playoffs last year was a humbling experience. Yearning to shed the San Jose East identity as talented underachievers, they have bought into new coach Barry Trotz’s system. Ovechkin especially has garnered a ton of praise for his outstanding play this season. He looks hungry and driven. Yet, he will never fully vanquish his critics until he can bring that dominant play to the postseason.
Washington and Pittsburgh both have a lot to prove and the talent to do it. A matchup should be a hard fought treat for the fans and great for the NHL.
2. Chicago Blackhawks vs. L.A. Kings
Call it the rubber match of the century. Both teams having won two Stanley cups each in the past five finals, this would be an epic clash of the champions. Their last meeting was a classic seven-game series in the Western Conference Final and it might as well have been for the Cup. Chicago needs to make the most of this year as Kane and Toews receive their massive raises next season, forcing Chicago yet again to sacrifice players to the cap gods.
The Kings were sluggish through most of the year (as one would expect of a team with deep playoff expectations) but turned it around with a late season push that has them looking unbeatable yet again. However, they have yet to fully overcome their poor start. The current champions are still far from a guarantee to make the playoffs, but if they do get in, watch out.
1 Montreal Canadiens vs. Boston Bruins
The most frequent playoff series in NHL history. If they meet again this year it’ll be for the 35th time! This matchup is always entertaining no matter where they sit in the standings.
Their opposing styles tell an exciting story. Boston loves tough hockey. They willingly trade scoring stars like Joe Thornton, Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin, and worship the smashmouth tough guys Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic. The Canadiens always have the plucky underdog feel, yet they currently sit near the very top of the East! The Canadiens, led by the unbelievable play of Carey Price are looking even stronger this year, while the Bruins are battling for their playoff lives. Even with 15 points separating them in the standings, a playoff encounter would still be must see TV.
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