By Sean McIndoe
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
We’re just a few days away from the return of the NHL, with the start of a play-in round to determine which four teams in each conference will advance to the first round of the playoffs, plus a round robin to determine seeding for the remaining teams. It’s a tournament format we’ve never seen before, and after four months without hockey, nobody would blame you if you find yourself desperately looking forward to that first week.
Where people might blame you would be if you were already looking even further ahead, and trying to figure out who’s going to play who in the round of 16. After all, we’ve got sixteen teams playing for survival and eight more playing for their seeding, and no idea how it might all shake out. Do the math, and we wind up with 64 possible matchups for what will officially be considered round one. If you really wanted to start thinking ahead, you’d have to consider every one of them.
Would that be crazy? No! But would it be? Yeah, a little, sure, but I’m doing it anyway. Look, you’ve seen what I’ve been up to for the last few months, it’s possible that I’m just a little bit too excited to have actual hockey to write about again. We’re doing this.
And by “this,” I mean coming up with one single sentence to pump the tires of all 64 potential first-round matchups. It probably goes without saying that this will be easier for some matchups than others, but that’s fine. Got to get those creativity muscles back into game shape, after all. Let’s start thinking positive and figure out why each of these 64 matchups is worth looking forward to.
Canadiens vs. Bruins
Quite possibly the greatest rivalry in hockey history, and it has a way of transforming even run-of-the-mill stuff like too-many-men penalties and handshake lines into something dramatic, so you don’t need my help to sell this one.
Canadiens vs. Lightning
The last time they met in the playoffs, they gave us a controversial overtime goal that spawned offside review, so whatever this series produced couldn’t possibly be any worse.
Canadiens vs. Capitals
It would be a 10th anniversary rematch of the only playoff meeting between the teams, which was one of the most memorable upsets of the cap era (with an added dose of Ilya Kovalchuk intrigue).
Canadiens vs. Flyers
They’ve had a couple of meetings in the cap era, but the real memories come from the 1980s, when the rivalry was so intense that the NHL had to make up new rules to get them to stop pummeling each other.
Coyotes vs. Blues
This series would feature the top two pending UFAs in Taylor Hall and Alex Pietrangelo, and there might only be enough money left in a flat cap world for whoever wins.
Coyotes vs. Avalanche
Sometimes the story of a series is a simple one, like when the highest-scoring roster in a conference faces the second-stingiest defensive team and we get to test that whole “defense is what wins in the playoffs” theory.
Coyotes vs. Golden Knights
This was the desert-based rivalry the NHL had in mind when the Golden Knights first arrived, before they wandered off and decided to feud with the California teams instead.
Coyotes vs. Stars
Phil Kessel vs. Tyler Seguin has never not been fun.
Hurricanes vs. Bruins
It would be a rematch from last year’s Eastern Conference finals that should have been so much better than it actually was, plus it would be fun when the Canes showed up in Whaler uniforms just to confuse everyone.
Hurricanes vs. Lightning
Admit it, two Cup-winning Southern contenders having a playoff series in an empty arena in Canada would be pretty hilarious.
Hurricanes vs. Capitals
Last year’s opening round series was amazing and this one could be a ton of fun, with a ready-made revenge narrative for the Capitals (but maybe also Andrei Svechnikov?).
Hurricanes vs. Flyers
Get ready for roughly a million photos of a 20-something Rod Brind’Amour with his shirt off.
Blackhawks vs. Blues
One of the oldest and best rivalries in hockey would be rekindled, and having it play out in August lowers the risk of any holiday-themed massacres.
Blackhawks vs. Avalanche
The Avs dominated the Hawks in three straight games this season and were on the way to doing it a fourth time when Chicago pulled off a stunning four-goal third period comeback, which would nicely reinforce this matchup’s, “Colorado should win easily but anything can happen” vibe.
Blackhawks vs. Golden Knights
Not many teams get a playoff date with the goalie they traded away at the deadline, but a surprise appearance by the Hawks means this could set up as the Robin Lehner revenge series.
Blackhawks vs. Stars
If this series happens, it means the 12th-place Hawks have beaten the fifth-place Oilers while a Stars team that finished a point behind Edmonton reeled off three good games in the round robin to earn the top seed in the West, so if you’re on Team Chaos and want to see the regular season rendered completely meaningless, this is your matchup.
Blue Jackets vs. Bruins
They met in the second round of last year’s playoffs and if you’re not a fan of either team you probably remember virtually none of it, but it was actually a darn good series that saw the underdog Blue Jackets give the Bruins a run for their money.
Blue Jackets vs. Lightning
The rematch of one of the greatest upsets of all time would either end with the Lightning slaying some demons or being pushed into a state of psychological crisis, with no real in-between.
Blue Jackets vs. Capitals
The Blue Jackets beat the Lightning last year and would have already beaten the Leafs to get to this matchup, and I kind of like the idea of John Tortorella just wandering through the playoffs smiting all the high-scoring teams one by one.
Blue Jackets vs. Flyers
The ill-advised Jeff Carter trade was almost a decade ago, but it still accounts for two-thirds of the Flyers top line, meaning the Blue Jackets could either go a long way to wiping the slate clean or pay the price for the mistakes of the past.
Canucks vs. Blues
Canucks fans have been waiting 50 years for a Stanley Cup while experiencing a steady stream of heart-breaking losses and facing a Blues team that finally broke through last year might give them a renewed sense of hope, making it way funnier when they immediately suffer another heart-breaking loss.
Canucks vs. Avalanche
Quinn Hughes vs. Cale Makar, winner gets the Calder plus the next decade’s worth of Norris Trophies, let’s go.
Canucks vs. Golden Knights
This would be a matchup between two of the three highest-scoring teams in the conference and potentially between two goaltenders who’ll be UFAs at the end of the season, so someone could make (or lose) a whole lot of money for themselves in one series.
Canucks vs. Stars
With lots of talent on display, there’d be no shortage of interesting matchups, including the geographical flip-flop of Tyler Myers (who was born in Texas) trying to shut down Jamie Benn (who’s from B.C.).
Islanders vs. Bruins
We could all play a game of, “Which franchise did Mike Milbury embarrass himself more with?”
Islanders vs. Lightning
It would be a classic battle between a high-octane powerhouse against a defense-first approach, and if you’re not sure how that usually goes in the playoffs, please refer to how these two teams did in the first round last year.
Islanders vs. Capitals
We didn’t get the big Barry Trotz revenge series last year when it would have been fresh, but even one year out it would still be fascinating to see Trotz (with help from Mitch Korn) try to take down the team he recently led to a championship.
Islanders vs. Flyers
I just kind of really want to see Gritty interact with Lou Lamoriello.
Flames vs. Blues
Everybody loves an angle where a long-time tag team turns on each other, and we’d have the added bonus of plenty of Tkachuk family storylines.
Flames vs. Avalanche
It would be a rematch of last year’s opening round mismatch, only with the roles reversed and the Flames playing the plucky underdog trying to pull off an upset.
Flames vs. Golden Knights
We probably won’t see much bad blood in this year’s playoffs, and we’re not completely sure who’d be in net for this series, but let’s remember that a year ago, Dave Rittich nearly fought Marc-Andre Fleury.
Flames vs. Stars
Corey Perry vs. Matthew Tkachuk would have some real “the apprentice realizes he must strike down the master” energy.
Oilers vs. Blues
We’re told that the original Oilers dynasty started with an eye-opening meeting with the defending champs, so maybe McDavid and friends would write the sequel here.
Oilers vs. Avalanche
This series might feature two finalists for the Hart Trophy, not to mention a ton of young supporting talent, and oh yeah, the best player in the world.
Oilers vs. Golden Knights
We’re always told that Mark Stone is among the best defensive forwards in the league, so let’s see how he matches up against two of the best offensive players in the sport.
Oilers vs. Stars
We’d be rekindling one of the longest-running rivalries of the ’90s and early ’00s, which saw the Oilers win a memorable upset in 1997 and then lose to the Stars (checks notes) every year after.
Wild vs. Blues
I’ve spent the last few months constantly pointing out how boring the Wild are, so admit it, you’d find it fun to watch them pull off a shocking upset over the defending champs while I cry about how I’m totally not being owned.
Wild vs. Avalanche
They’ve met in the playoffs three times, and two of those ended with Game 7 overtime, so if I understand how probability works (and I’m pretty sure that I do) then it’s guaranteed to happen again.
Wild vs. Golden Knights
These are the two teams that finished at the very bottom of our recent high/low rankings, which either means this series could be super-boring or that the hockey gods have been saving up for something extraordinary.
Wild vs. Stars
It feels like it was years ago, but one of the most memorable games of the first half came on October 29, when the Stars rallied from down 3-0 to save their season and (we assumed) put the nail in the coffin of the Wild’s.
Panthers vs. Bruins
The Panthers are a sneaky good team that’s well-positioned for a deep run, and while we all want to skip ahead to the showdown between the Bruins and Lightning, sneaking in a fresh matchup that isn’t the usual Boston/Toronto series would add some unpredictability.
Panthers vs. Lightning
Florida has had two NHL teams for 27 years but this would be the first time in history that they met in the playoffs, although the Lightning do have some recent experience facing Sergei Bobrovsky.
Panthers vs. Capitals
This matchup between former Southeast Division rivals would be like a high school reunion, if your high school had always been terrible and everyone laughed at it.
Panthers vs. Flyers
There’d be no shortage of ready-made storylines, including Bobrovsky coming full circle to face his original team and Joel Quenneville meeting the team he might have spurned last summer.
Predators vs. Blues
The Predators remain the last team to beat the Blues in the playoffs (back in 2017), so this is as close to a revenge matchup as the champs can get.
Predators vs. Avalanche
We could have all sorts of fun with Matt Duchene, the former Avalanche star who wanted out, was traded to Ottawa with an assist from the Predators (that landed Samuel Girard in Colorado), and then signed in Nashville last summer.
Predators vs. Golden Knights
It’s not often that you see a coach get fired midway through a season and then get hired by a new team that same year, and it’s even more rare to see two of those guys end up facing each other in a playoff series.
Predators vs. Stars
We can throw out any talk of momentum and safely ignore that the Stars ended the season on a six-game losing streak because, you know, (gestures at literally everything), but it might be worth remembering that two of those losses were back-to-back shutouts at the hands of Juuse Saros.
Rangers vs. Bruins
There’s some Original Six history here, although not as much as you might think, but it really doesn’t matter because Boston/New York sports always delivers.
Rangers vs. Lightning
These teams make at least one blockbuster trade every few years, so it would be fun to watch them take the ice and then stand around trying to remember who plays for who.
Rangers vs. Capitals
They’ve met five times in the cap era and four of them have gone seven games, including three one-goal nail-biters and one overtime finish, and as an added bonus their last meeting this year was the Mika Zibanejad game.
Rangers vs. Flyers
Jack Adams frontrunner Alain Vigneault meets the team that fired him in 2018 after he’d won six playoff rounds, a Presidents’ Trophy and a conference championship in five seasons.
Jets vs. Blues
Do you remember when Winnipeg had last year’s Blues down 2-0 in Game 5 of a tied series and on the ropes only to give up a disastrous winning goal with seconds left that turned the series around, because I’m guessing the Jets still do.
Jets vs. Avalanche
Connor Hellebuyck singlehandedly dragged a team with no blueline into range of the postseason but didn’t make the final three for the Hart Trophy because goaltenders are apparently not eligible for that award, so it would be fun to watch him prove a point by shutting down one of the guys who did.
Jets vs. Golden Knights
It would be a rematch of the most memorable showdown of the 2018 postseason, by which I mean the time the pre-game knight guy fought an airplane with a sword.
Jets vs. Stars
This matchup would be the exclamation point on the remarkable story of Rick Bowness, who coached the Jets to eight wins as a 34-year-old way back in 1989, went on to wander the league with six other teams, and is now a head coach again in Dallas for the first time in 15 years.
Maple Leafs vs. Bruins
If you’re the sort of person who likes to read the last few pages of a novel so you already know how the story is going to end before you start, you’ll love the Leafs/Bruins playoff rivalry.
Maple Leafs vs. Lightning
Two teams that are packed with speed and skill, with an extra dose of frailty over their recent failures, would add up to quite possibly the most entertaining possible matchup of the entire first round, once you get past both teams having basically the same uniforms.
Maple Leafs vs. Capitals
We’d get a ton of offensive firepower in a rematch of their surprisingly good 2017 series that included five overtimes, only this time the Caps have a Cup ring while the Leafs are older and (maybe) wiser.
Maple Leafs vs. Flyers
OK hear me out on this one, the Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since Darcy Tucker took out Sami Kapanen with a high hit back in 2004 and the Flyers came back and scored the overtime winner seconds later, maybe that hit put some kind of curse on the Leafs that they can only remove by beating the Flyers in a rematch and yes I know I may have thought too much about this but it’s OK because this is technically still the same sentence and I’m rolling, so where was I, oh right, guess whose son is on the Leafs now and could score the overtime winner that broke the hex and make it so the Leafs can win in the playoffs again and yeah my point is this needs to happen.
Penguins vs. Bruins
These two teams have a low-key but decades long rivalry over everything from uniform colors to Ulf Samuelsson to custody of Jarome Iginla, plus we’d get to see Team Canada’s entire first line in the same series.
Penguins vs. Lightning
Nobody would have any trouble getting up for a matchup between teams that are stacked with skill, and their two meetings in the Crosby/Stamkos era have both been seven-game classics.
Penguins vs. Capitals
Another no-brainer, it’s already one of the best rivalries of the modern era, but this would be the first meeting where both teams had the Cup-winner swagger.
Penguins vs. Flyers
It’s a bitter rivalry with legitimate bad blood that almost always serves up a crazy series, so you know what the Penguins are going to be a great matchup with just about anyone.
And that wraps up all 64 possible first-round series. Check back next on Monday, when I’ll have full previews for all 144 possible Stanley Cup Final matchups.