The Washington Capitals will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs, and hockey fans have some mixed feelings about the matchup. On the one hand, it should make for a fantastic series, one that pits the regular season's two best teams against each other. But on the other, something seems off about a playoff format that serves up a matchup like this in the second round, while also giving us a Senators/Rangers series featuring two teams who finished well behind.
Let's put the playoff format debate aside for today, and focus on the positive: We may be about to see one of the best second-round matchups in NHL history.
That's a tougher list to put together than you might think, since the NHL has a long history of odd playoff formats. For the Original Six era, of course, the "second round" was the Stanley Cup final, so that doesn't really seem to fit what we're looking for. And for most of the 1970s, there was a best-of-three preliminary round that nobody was sure actually counted.
But in 1980, the league switched over to a four-round format that was close enough to what we have today that we can start our search there. So as the Caps and Pens get ready to face off, let's look back on the best second-round matchups of the last 37 years. (We're looking for the best matchups on paper here; we'll save a post on the ones that actually turned out to be the best series for down the line.)
1988: Flames vs. Oilers
You could take your pick of four different Oilers/Flames matchups between 1983 and 1988; this is probably the greatest second-round rivalry in NHL history (although Canadiens/Nordiques might have something to say there). We'll go with the last of the group, since by 1988 it had been clearly established that the Battle of Alberta was the unofficial Stanley Cup final.
The matchup: The Oilers had won three of the last four Cups and had put up 99 points. But the Flames won the division (and the Presidents' Trophy) with a 105-point campaign. The series featured two of the league's three best regular season records.
The series: Ironically, the best of the Flames/Oilers matchups on paper produced the worst series. While their 1984 and 1986 matchups were both seven-game classics and gave us one of the most memorable moments of the decade, this one was a bust. While all the games were reasonably close, the Oilers swept the Flames aside in four games en route to one of the most impressive Stanley Cup runs ever -- they lost just two games in the entire playoffs.
1992: Penguins vs. Rangers
If we're going purely by regular season record, this matchup wasn't quite as good as some others. But based on star power and stakes, this may have been the best second-round pairing ever.
The matchup: The 105-point Rangers had just won their first Presidents' Trophy, while the 87-point Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champs. More importantly, the Rangers traded for Mark Messier that year, making it clear that they were coming for Mario Lemieux and the Penguins.
The series: You want to beat the champs, you'd better bring your best game. The Rangers didn't quite have it yet, and the Penguins won a tough six-game series in which all the games except the last one were close. It was a nasty series, perhaps best remembered for Adam Graves breaking Lemieux's hand, and featured two overtime games. The Pens closed it out by winning the last three games of the series, and didn't lose again for the rest of the playoffs.
This one might feel a little ominous to fans of this year's Capitals, given the whole "high-powered Presidents' Trophy champs loses to the defending champion Penguins" thing. If so, don't forget that the Rangers were just two years away from snapping their Cup drought.
1999: Red Wings vs. Avalanche
The matchup: The greatest rivalry of its era was forged in the conference final; that's where Claude Lemieux hammered Kris Draper in 1996, where the Wings gained their revenge in 1997, and where Patrick Roy pulled his Statue of Liberty in 2002. But the height of the rivalry also saw the two teams meet twice in the second round, in both 1999 and 2000. We'll go with the first of those matchups, because even though neither team had their best regular season, the rivalry was burning red hot by that point and everyone was begging for this matchup to happen.
The series: The Wings went into Colorado and took the first two games. But the Avalanche stormed back to win four straight, outscoring the Wings 19-7 in the process. They won the series in six, ending the Red Wing's quest for a threepeat, and the league hasn't seen back-to-back Cup winners since.
Also, there weren't any goalie fights. Lame.
2006: Senators vs. Sabres
There's some irony in the Senators being involved in the series that everyone is grumbling about this year, since there was a time when they had a knack for finding excellent second-round matchups. They faced the Maple Leafs in a seven-game classic in 2002, and continued an underrated rivalry with the Flyers in 2003. But we'll go a bit more recent for this choice.
The matchup: The 113-point Senators faced the 110-point Sabres in a battle between the Eastern Conferences first and third best records.
The series: The first game was an all-time classic, a wild 7-6 overtime win for the Sabres. Buffalo went on to take a 3-0 series lead and eventually close it out in five. The series was closer than it looked – the Sabres won three of the games in overtime – but having it end so quickly was disappointing. The two teams staged a rematch in the conference finals in 2007, with the Senators getting some revenge with a five-game win of their own.
2010: Blackhawks vs. Canucks
The Blackhawks and Canucks met in the second round in both 2009 and 2010. They finished the trilogy with another matchup in 2011, although that one came in Round 1.
The matchup: The 112-point Blackhawks and 103-point Canucks were the league's third and fourth-best regular season teams. Both teams were clearly peaking at the same time while building up to Stanley Cup contender status, and for the second straight year they had to go through each other to get there.
The series: The two teams split the first two games in Chicago, but the Blackhawks took games three and four in Vancouver, scoring 12 goals in the process while planting the seeds for the "Roberto Luongo can't get it done in big playoff games" narrative. The Canucks extended the series with a Game 5 road win, but the Hawks closed it out with another blowout win in Vancouver.
Chicago went on to win its first Cup of the Toews/Kane era a few weeks later, while the Canucks came within one win of their own title the following season.
Just missed the cut:
- 1981: Oilers vs Islanders (just for the foreshadowing of what was to come)
- 1984: Islanders vs. Capitals (two 100-point teams in an era when that meant something)
- 1988-92: Habs vs. Bruins (four straight second-round meetings)
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.