Puck drops on the NHL playoffs on Wednesday night, so The Ringer’s resident hockey enthusiasts gathered to pick the matchups (within the matchups) that we’re most excited to see in the first round. Here we go:
The Incumbents (Capitals) vs. A Bunch of Jerks (Hurricanes)
Donnie Kwak: Come Thursday night’s Game 1 faceoff in Washington, it’ll have been 315 days since that fateful Vegas night when Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. For Caps fans, the 2018-19 regular season has been intermittently enjoyable (Ovi’s 51 goals!) but mostly interminable—the protracted prelude to a back-to-back quest. The Caps enter the 2019 postseason with essentially the same championship squad, minus injured defenseman Michal Kempny and demoted forward Devante Smith-Pelly. In their stead, if not quite like-for-like replacements, are February pickups Nick Jensen (from Detroit) and longtime Caps bogeyman and ace penalty-killer Carl Hagelin. When all else fails, goalie Braden Holtby can be counted on to clean up mistakes; he has the third-highest save percentage (.929) in NHL playoff history. Washington won five of their last seven regular-season games to win the Metropolitan Division, including two versus Carolina, against whom the Caps swept the four-game season series but have never faced in the postseason.
For Canes fans, the playoff wait has been just a wee bit longer—3,614 days will have elapsed between Carolina playoff games, 10 years apart. Leading scorer Sebastian Aho and D-man Jaccob Slavin—the Canes’ time-on-ice leaders at forward and defense, respectively—have yet to play a single playoff minute. However, that doesn’t mean Carolina’s team is absent of playoff grit, as they are captained by former Cap Justin “Game 7” Williams, he of three Cups (including Carolina’s only triumph in 2006) and 140 total playoff games. It was Williams who orchestrated the Canes’ exuberant “Storm Surge” celebrations after home victories, which famously inspired the ornery Don Cherry to label the team “a bunch of jerks.” (Relax, Don.) There will be no such cellies in the playoffs, per the captain, as full attention will presumably be required to upend the defending champs. The Canes led the NHL in shots on goal this season, and have a speedy lineup that can create havoc around their opponents’ net. PNC Arena will surely be energized for their first postseason games in a decade. But beyond the feel-good vibes of an upstart, Carolina will need one of their two goalies—Petr Mrazek and journeyman Curtis McElhinney—to be at his best in net to have a shot at an upset.
The High-Flying Scorers (Flames) vs. The Hot Goalie (Avalanche)
Kwak: My colleague Michael Baumann wrote at length about Calgary, the best of the West and “the only team in the NHL to have five 70-point scorers this year: [Johnny] Gaudreau, [Matthew] Tkachuk, [Mark] Giordano, and Gaudreau’s linemates Monahan and Elias Lindholm.” Only the Lightning scored more goals than the Flames this season, who are facing Colorado in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. In the regular season, Calgary swept the Avalanche, scoring 14 times over three games, although their last meeting was way back on January 9.
Meanwhile, the Avalanche had the fewest points of any playoff team, just like last year, when they lost in the first round to Nashville. For most of this season, Colorado’s first line—Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog—was considered one of the best forward threesomes in the league. Outside of them, though, it’s slim pickings. Which means the play of goaltender Philipp Grubauer will determine how long the Avalanche survive. The 27-year-old German, acquired via a trade with Washington last June, went 8-1-2 in his last 11 starts, and had a save percentage of .958 at even strength over the final two months of the regular season. We’ve seen this movie before: Hot goalie inspires improbable underdog win over heavy favorite. If Grubauer can keep the games close, Colorado has a chance.
The Unstoppable Force (Lightning) vs. Fortune, Which Favors the Brave (Blue Jackets)
Michael Baumann: I love what Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen did at the trade deadline in February. His club, which has never won a playoff series, was sitting on the playoff bubble and was set to lose its two best players (goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin) to free agency this summer. So Kekalainen went all in. The Jackets made four trades in the days before the deadline, acquiring forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid, and goalie Keith Kinkaid—all of them unrestricted free agents at season’s end—for a net of six draft picks, which could include two first-rounders and two second-rounders.
It’s a huge risk, the exact opposite of what a savvy, post-Moneyball, Arbitrage-in-athleisure GM ought to do. And Columbus ought to be rewarded for showing such gumption. But the Jackets are coached by John Tortorella, hockey’s avatar of spiteful nihilism, and by not clinching a playoff berth until their penultimate game, they’ll face the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are probably the best NHL team of the past 20 years. It’s incredibly annoying when teams as good as Tampa don’t win the title, giving the dumbest guy at the bar license to crow about how they choked when 90 percent of playoff upsets can be chalked up to luck. But there is one playoff outcome, and only one, that I’d rather see than a Tampa Bay coronation: for the Jackets to reap the benefits of their GM’s boldness and secure the franchise’s first-ever playoff series win.
Cold Goalie (Sharks) vs. Not-Fully-Healthy Goalie (Golden Knights)
Matt James: This series—which is a rematch of last season’s Western Conference Semifinals—might be the most difficult first-round matchup to predict. Coming into the season, both the Sharks and Knights were regarded as legitimate cup contenders and yet both have sputtered into the postseason with only three wins in each of their last 10 games. Significant injuries have played a role in both lackluster finishes—Joe Pavelski and Erik Karlsson for the Sharks, and Marc-André Fleury for the Knights. All three players returned to action just a few games before the playoffs, and while they’ll be on the ice for this series, we can’t know for sure how healthy they really are.
Question marks aside, the definitive reason to watch this series is the certainty of goaltending drama. Despite a 101-point season, the Sharks somehow managed to reach the postseason without a goalie sporting a save percentage north of .900. The Knights will look to Fleury to play his usual role of playoff savior, but he’s had a down season statistically and is dealing with the dreaded goalie “lower-body injury” diagnosis. The Knights’ backup, Malcolm Subban, has been serviceable at best. My advice for these two teams, who both finished in the top five in the league shots against per game: shoot the puck.
The Experienced (Penguins) vs. The Happy to Be Heres (Islanders)
Cory McConnell: This year’s matchup between the Penguins and Islanders is a study in contrasts. The Penguins have won three Stanley Cups in 10 years, while the Islanders have won just a single playoff series in the last 25. The Islanders’ lauded defense has allowed the fewest goals in the league this season and fewest points against per game, while the offensive-minded Pens rank sixth in goals per game and fifth in power-play percentage.
First-year coach Barry Trotz has worked marvels with this John Tavares–less team: New York won 48 games this season, the franchise’s highest win total since its dynastic 1980s teams. And for the fourth consecutive year, the former Capitals coach is facing a playoff matchup against Mike Sullivan, whose Penguins look vulnerable, having endured a season full of injuries and poor defensive play. But despite Pittsburgh’s relative struggles, Evgeni Malkin told reporters earlier this week, “We have a second chance right now. It was not a great year for me, for sure, but now you can change everything. ... Now everything is zero.”
“Everything is zero” isn’t the catchiest playoff mantra, but Malkin is right that the playoffs offer a fresh start. The Penguins will have to lean on their veterans’ experience, while the Islanders will try to extend their best season in decades. Or maybe these two teams will just beat the hell out of each other like they used to.
Brad Marchand (Bruins) vs. The Toronto Hockey Media-Industrial Complex (Maple Leafs)
Katie Baker: Leading up to last year’s postseason matchup with the Bruins, Toronto Maple Leaf coach Mike Babcock told the media that he had tried watching a Boston game on TV but had turned it off in frustration after seeing the Bruins make one awesome play after another. Sportsnet posted video on Twitter, and eight minutes later the Bruins’ Brad Marchand replied. “Its [sic] called playing mind games,” he tweeted, high praise from the mind-game master himself.
In a recent poll of NHL players by The Athletic, Marchand was named the league’s best trash talker, and also the worst. This is fitting, because Marchand is as polarizing a figure as they come: You are either triggered by the infuriating smirk-on-skates, who is known for punching faces when he’s not busy running his tongue over them; or you stan a rat and are charmed by his Conor McGregor–inspired goal celebrations, his once-misspelled “Stanley Cup champians” tattoo, and the inescapable fact that in the last three seasons the Little Ball of Hate 2.0 has scored 85, 85, and 100 regular-season points, respectively. Marchand actually being a fantastic player is truly his finest trolling.
With Leo Komarov gone, Travis Dermott was asked what if Brad Marchand gave him a licking. Laughing he said "my dog Niylah (an Aussie Shepherd) has been eating the floorboards at my apartment and I’ve put some hot sauce (to discourage it). Maybe I’ll put some hot sauce on me."— Lance Hornby (@sunhornby) April 7, 2019
The Maple Leaf media apparatus, bless its heart, is the perfect foil for Marchand: Like him, Toronto columnists, talking heads, and bloggers are maestros of controversy and masters of their form. The Leafs-Bruins series can be expected to feature savage back-and-forths between two combatants with a long history of dislike. And then there will be the hockey. I can’t wait.
Recent Juggernaut (Jets) vs. The Hottest Team in Hockey (Blues)
Megan Schuster: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The surging Blues are entering this postseason on the back of a wild second-half run (after January 3, they went 30-10-5 and jumped from last place in the league to fifth in the Western Conference), one largely made possible by rookie goaltender, Jordan Binnington. That’s right, folks, it wouldn’t be the St. Louis Blues in the playoffs without a hot goalie narrative! Binnington has been excellent this season, recording a .927 save percentage and just 1.89 goals against average in 32 games. But as a first-year starter, he’s never played in the postseason: a similar situation to the one Jets’ goaltender Connor Hellebuyck found himself in last year.
Winnipeg made it all the way to the Western Conference finals last season, and with most of that team’s primary cast having returned for 2018-19, it’s not out of the question to happen again. Captain Blake Wheeler had his second-straight 91-point season, Mark Scheifele has been excellent once again, and the Jets are backed by one of the most excitable crowds in the league. The only thing standing (or rather, kneeling) in their way? A hot goalie. Look out, Jets.
Power Play Woes (Predators) vs. A Lacking Offense (Stars)
James: After an up-and-down regular season, first-year coach Jim Montgomery now finds his Dallas Stars in the playoffs. (I guess the team’s CEO has nothing to yell about at the moment.) The postseason can act as a fresh start if you have some worrisome tendencies you’re looking to shed, or as the natural continuance of all your hard work if things are going well. For the Dallas Stars, it’s both. They finished the regular season 29th in the league in goals scored, but they also finished second in goals against per game. They’ll be hoping that Mats Zuccarello’s return to the lineup will stimulate the team’s’ meager offensive output and that Ben Bishop can continue to be an absolute wall in goal if they have any hopes of advancing.
Staring back at the Stars are the Nashville Predators—another excellent defensive team with outstanding goaltending. The Predators, however, were much better than Dallas at lighting the lamp this year, and they also have the added benefit of having accrued some recent playoff experience. These Predators do have one glaring flaw, though: They finished the regular season with the single-worst power play percentage in the league, which doesn’t come close to stacking up against the Stars’ 11th-ranked power play. The Preds have scored just two power-play goals in their past 10 games. In what’s likely to be a low-scoring series, the Stars can see the exhaust port on this Predators’ Death Star.