After a shortened regular season that saw intra-divisional rivalries flourish, longtime powerhouses surge back to the top of the league, and penalty boxes fill up like clown cars, we’ve finally reached the pinnacle of the NHL calendar: the start of the playoffs. Ahead of Saturday’s puck drop, The Ringer’s hockey heads got together to preview the players they’re most excited to watch this postseason, the teams they can’t wait to see get eliminated, and their picks to take home the Stanley Cup.
1. What is your tweet-length preview of the Stanley Cup playoffs?
Michael Baumann: I’m ashamed of how excited I am. This league frustrates me so much, but there may not be anything better in sports than tournament hockey. Every year I forget I’m supposed to be cynical and just mark out for two months.
Megan Schuster: Me: Say the line, Bart.
why watch overtime playoff hockey when you can simply snort cocaine and ride a motorcycle out of a helicopter— Jon Bois (@jon_bois) April 17, 2014
Jomi Adeniran: A new format but the same trophy? Are you not entertained? Because I am!
Cory McConnell: We’re gonna need a bigger box.
Logan Rhoades: The regular season was shortened and strange, but it led to some of the best hockey we’ve ever seen. There are lots of story lines, and if the playoffs can keep the momentum, this should be great.
2. Which player are you most excited to watch?
Baumann: Can I just come out and say Connor McDavid from the start or do I have to pretend this is a tough decision and hem and haw a little?
Baker: McDavid in the West; Taylor Hall in the East.
McConnell: Evgeni Malkin. After spending much of the season sidelined due to injury, Malkin played four games at the end of the regular season to mostly mixed results. The Penguins did just fine in his absence, finishing the season in first for team scoring and locking up their division title. But while the Pens may have found their groove without Malkin, he’s played an important role in every recent Pittsburgh Cup run and will need to do so again if the team wants to make it out of the particularly difficult East division playoff bracket. If the former Conn Smythe winner can find his legs and his scoring touch, watch out.
Adeniran: McDavid is the most exciting player I’ve ever seen, so I’d love to see him light it up on the biggest stage in hockey. Hopefully he’ll get to play in more than four games, unlike his last trip to the postseason.
Schuster: My supremely homerish answer is the Thrill, the Dolla Bill, the one and only Kirill Kaprizov. It’s no secret that the Wild have been one of the NHL’s most boring teams, well, since the franchise’s inception in 2000. But thanks to the inhuman goal-scoring prowess of one Russian rookie, that’s all changed this year. Kaprizov is a threat from anywhere on the ice, at any time in the game (especially late in close contests). And I can’t wait to see whether he can drag this stalled-out franchise to some postseason success in his first trip to the playoffs.
Rhoades: Auston Matthews. He’s always been a legit scorer, but this year is different. His hot streak hasn’t cooled off at all, and he’s scoring in every way imaginable. Plus, he has a great mustache.
3. Which team are you hoping gets bounced the earliest?
Baker: As a longtime member of Team Chaos, all I want in the world is a Leafs-Bruins final. One of many necessary casualties to achieve that goal is the Washington Capitals being ousted in the first round. Sorry, Ovi, still love ya!
McConnell: The Washington Hockey Team.
Rhoades: Man, fuck Boston. And Pittsburgh. Always. I hope they both get embarrassed and lose every game. And if they end up playing one another, then I hope the series is so exhausting that the winner gets swept in the next round and goes scoreless in the process.
Baumann: As a Flyers fan, I’m duty-bound to root for the Penguins to get swept. And I will. But oh my God could you imagine if the Maple Leafs, in this year, in this division, lost in the first round again? The takes would constitute a danger to public safety, and then result in William Nylander getting traded for some goon who’d immediately get billed as the second coming of Wendel Clark. I cannot wait.
Adeniran: You won’t be surprised by this if you’ve ever spoken to me for five minutes, but I hope the Boston Bruins get swept and lose every game by 45 goals.
Schuster: If the entirety of the East division could get out of my face, that’d be great.
4. How do you feel about this year’s unique playoff setup?
Baker: Every year should be like this, honestly, whereby Canada is guaranteed one (1) spot in the final four, BUT ONLY ONE (1) SPOT.
Baumann: I’m pretty excited about a few of the matchups it’s given us that we don’t usually see—the Battle of Florida, the first Leafs-Habs series in more than 40 years—but I’ve maintained that this is all a scam to give the weaker Canadian teams a chance at making the Cup final.
McConnell: As a fan of a team in the East division, it’s more of the same. The East is the toughest division and those teams have had to exclusively play each other all season. It’d be easy to complain about, but you have to beat the best teams to win the Cup in any year. The big difference is that the best teams will be playing each other much earlier, so I’m excited for the fireworks in the early rounds.
Adeniran: I am 100 percent here for it! This is the time to try new things and make the most exciting playoffs in sports even more so.
Rhoades: By this point, these teams know each other really well, so the homework is done and it’s just time to play. There are no excuses in the early rounds. You know exactly what you’re getting.
5. This is your space to talk about the North (a.k.a all-Canada) division. Vent away.
Rhoades: This division should never change. I only want to see Canada against Canada. McDavid should play against only these teams. And let’s throw Buffalo in there too.
Baker: Vent? More like smile serenely as I imagine the absolute media meltdown that will take place if either the Oilers or the Leafs so much as go 0-1 to start their series ...
Baumann: Was it fair to give the Canadian teams a red carpet to the latter stages of the playoffs? No. Has it been fun to watch McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Matthews beat wholesale ass against a bunch of jamokes? More than I’d ever imagined.
Schuster: I’ve actually come around to support the existence of this division, if only for the takes. If a Canadian team finally ends the country’s 28-year-long Stanley Cup drought this season, people will say it’s because they were gifted a spot in the semifinals. And if they don’t, people will say they were gifted a spot in the semifinals and still couldn’t get it done. Either way I win.
McConnell: The New York Rangers, a barely above-.500 squad that just fired its two top executives and was fined a quarter of a million dollars for its … colorful statement following #Williegate, would be the no. 4 seed in the North division. So while it’s nice that they get their own little bracket this year, no, I’m not taking any of these Canadian teams seriously as title contenders.
Adeniran: As someone who has never been to Canada, let this be my formal application for a visa: I have never, at any point, had any ill will toward any team in the NHL’s northernmost division and decidedly stand against any of my colleagues that disagree.
6. Who is your pick to take home the Conn Smythe?
Baker: My head says Nathan MacKinnon. My heart wants Brad Marchand.
Baumann: I don’t know if this is a year when the highest scorer on the Cup champion takes home the Conn Smythe, or a year when the voters get cute and give it to a defenseman. So … MacKinnon? With the possibility that Cale Makar could sneak in and steal it.
McConnell: It’s been nine years since a goalie won the Conn Smythe, which is the longest drought for a netminder receiving that award. If the Golden Knights make the Final, I could see Marc-Andre Fleury taking it home.
Adeniran: Auston Matthews will descend from his throne across the wall and claim the first Conn Smythe trophy for a Canadian team since Patrick Roy in 1993.
Rhoades: It’s McDavid. Some other players are having career-best seasons with mind-blowing numbers, but McDavid is undeniably above all of them. What he’s done this season is THAT good.
Schuster: As much as I don’t want it to be MacKinnon, because that means his team made it out of the West, I think it will be MacKinnon.
7. And which team will win the Cup?
Baumann: The Avalanche. I have faith in Jared Bednar’s suits; the defensive corps is good enough to drag a team with replacement-level forwards to the Cup final; and the Avs not only have one of the best lines in hockey (MacKinnon-Rantanen-Landeskog) but two other lines that were basically just as good from an expected goal differential this year. They would’ve won the Cup last year if they hadn’t been whittled down to, like, their eighth-string goalie. They’ll finish the job this year.
Baker: Oh no, does this survey need to have consistent internal logic? If so, I guess my head says Colorado Avalanche and my heart says Toronto Maple Leafs. xoxo, the Mush
McConnell: In the tradition of hockey superstitions, I would never pick my team, the Pens, to win the Cup. I would never suggest that by coming out in first place in the league’s toughest division, healthy and flaunting a chemistry that’s been absent in their past few playoff campaigns, they could take home the hardware. I would also never point out that their combination of depth and goal-scoring make them particularly well-suited to take on teams from the West and North divisions that got to pad their records all year by playing inferior competition. You heard none of this from me.
Adeniran: I can’t believe I’m saying this … but I’m going with the Maple Leafs. 2021 is the year Auston Matthews brings Toronto its first Stanley Cup since 1967, let’s go!
Rhoades: The Vegas Golden Knights. It’s crazy to say because they’re still such a new franchise, but it’s their time. This team isn’t streaky; they’re supremely solid. They’re built to beat anybody, and this is the year they’re lifting the Cup.