If the season ended today, the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs bracket would look like this. Which matchup would be a must-see — and which series would be most skippable?
Greg Wyshynski: While it doesn’t have the traditional rivalry gravitas of the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs or the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings — both must-see series in their own right — that Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars series is the one I’m gluing myself to the screen to watch.
The Predators got a taste of the Stanley Cup Final last season and seem to be living each day to earn the chance to taste it again. Nashville GM David Poile is already all-in with that Kyle Turris trade — and one assumes he’s not done. P.K. Subban, that Filip Forsberg line, the catfish-tossing fans … yes, please.
But on the other side of the ice, you’d have a Stars team with a few must-see players — Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg and Alexander Radulov — playing for a coach, in Ken Hitchcock, who won the franchise’s lone Stanley Cup almost 20 years ago. It would be a battle between a team seemingly destined to win a championship vs. a team that desperately tried to reconfigure itself to contend for one again. Ben Bishop, a money playoff goalie, was part of that reconfiguration. His duel with Pekka Rinne could be the best of the first round.
Just a fascinating series, and two franchises that have never met in the playoffs.
The series I’d probably skip? Honestly, the Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets. Maybe I’ve already spent too many hours of my life watching John Tortorella glower at the Capitals from behind the opposite bench in a playoff series. Or maybe these are two teams that both qualify for “lemme know which one of you gets to the second round in case the Pittsburgh Penguins make it through again” status. Because things will only get really interesting for the Jackets or Capitals after the opening stanza.
Emily Kaplan: The Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues. I am so here for it. Really, this matchup could be the Jets vs. any of the Central Division teams lurking in the wild-card hunt and it would excite me. But Winnipeg and St. Louis would be especially entertaining. The Jets are a fun team to watch — their depth of young talent, from Mark Scheifele to Patrik Laine to Nikolaj Ehlers, is an embarrassment of riches — but they don’t get the attention they deserve here in the States. A competitive, seven-game series in the first round could change that.
Speaking of the casual fan, this can be a coming-out party for Scheifele, one of the more underrated stars in the game. And then there are the Blues, everyone’s darling for the first quarter of the season. As I wrote Monday, the Blues have a particularly tortured playoff history — they haven’t won the Cup since they entered the league in 1967-68 despite a plethora of superstars donning St. Louis jerseys and plenty of sustained success. The latest superstar is Vladimir Tarasenko, who I’m forever convinced is criminally underrated despite, you know, scoring the most even strength-goals since the beginning of the 2014-15 season. Most people wrote the Blues off this season after their flood of injuries in the offseason. So it would be fitting if this is the year that Tarasenko and his band of scrappy sidekicks — Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Alex Pietrangelo, who is continually praised by his peers for being elite — finally break through.
As for skippable? I don’t have a ton of interest in New York Islanders-Tampa Bay Lightning. The Islanders have been so streaky this season, and even with their redeeming qualities (John Tavares’ dominant season, Josh Bailey’s renaissance, being in awe of rookie Mathew Barzal), I don’t have faith in their playoff chances. Of course, a lot of that stems from deep-rooted goaltending issues. But I also feel they will be exploited by a superior opponent, and let’s be honest, the Lightning are the elite team everyone is scared to face come April. One particularly lopsided matchup? The Lightning’s potent power play against the Islanders’ penalty kill, which ranks 29th in the league.
Chris Peters: The one I’d be watching with the greatest interest would probably be the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s a pretty even matchup based on their performances this season, but you also never quite know what to expect with either team. Also, a Patrice Bergeron-Auston Matthews head-to-head goes a long way in my watchability valuations.
There are a lot of other factors at play, too. We all remember the 2013 Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the two teams — one of the most memorable playoff battles of the past decade, as far as I’m concerned. The Bruins still have plenty of key players from that team, but the Maple Leafs are a completely different team. Things have changed so much for both teams in seemingly different ways. The Bruins and Leafs also are in unique positions in their franchise development. Boston still has some stalwarts from its Stanley Cup core in Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Zdeno Chara, while the Leafs are very much leaning on the new wave of players such as Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. It is going to be fascinating to see how that all plays out.
If we’re judging by what has happened so far in the regular season, it’s anyone’s guess who would have the upper hand in this series. Toronto has won two of three in the head-to-head so far, with one of those victories coming in overtime. Meanwhile, both teams are top 10 in goals for per game, and in both power play and penalty kill. I think it would be an awfully tense series that could go the distance, which would be a lot of fun.
The rest of the series, as they stand right now, come with a lot of intrigue and good storylines. In terms of matchup, the one that looks the most lopsided is probably the Lightning-Islanders one. The two teams have actually split their regular-season matchups, but in a race to four wins, I have a hard time believing the Isles would be any match for Tampa’s high-powered offense.