With the end of the NHL's regular-season approximately two weeks away, attention has settled on the possible first-round playoff showdowns. Many, if not most of the specific post-season berths won't be finalized until closer to the final games on Apr. 11, but it's not too early to start crossing fingers in the hope that some teams will wind up facing particular opponents and provide viewers with maximum entertainment value right out of the gate. Here are the top five best-case scenario first-round matchups this year:
5. Montreal vs. Ottawa. There are a few ways the Senators can take on the Canadiens in the first round, and most of them involve the Habs fending off Tampa Bay to retain top spot in the Atlantic Division, while the Sens hold on to the final wild card berth. Both results are entirely possible, and if it does happen, Canadian TV executives will be shimmying down the avenue as they celebrate the massive ratings that are sure to ensue.
The prospect of Andrew "The Hamburglar" Hammond on one side and Carey "The Cowboy" Price on the other is a meat product marketer's dream, and any opportunity for the regional rivals to clash is going to enrich the rivalry in years to come. And the series outcome almost certainly wouldn't be lopsided. Montreal would be favored, but the way the Senators have been playing of late, an upset isn't at all out of the question.
4. Chicago vs. Nashville. To wind up with this series, the Blackhawks might have to drop down to the Western Conference's final wild card slot – and although that prospect once sounded far-fetched, Chicago's Central Division rivals in Minnesota and Winnipeg trail them by only three and four points respectively. In any case, a Hawks/Predators battle would be fascinating in a number of ways: when you look at their lineups, this feels somewhat counterintuitive, but it's true – the Preds have a better offense (ranked 12th in the NHL at 2.77 goals-for per game) than Chicago (16th overall at 2.71), but the Hawks' defense (ranked first in the West and third in the league at 2.25 goals-allowed per game) is better than Nashville's (ranked fourth overall at 2.33). And there are more than enough exciting youngsters and all-star caliber veterans on both sides to make every shift worth tuning in for.
3. Los Angeles vs. Anaheim. The Kings aren't assured of making the playoffs, but their recent surge has pushed them out of the wild card berths and into third place in the Pacific Division. If they remain there or overtake the Canucks for second, they'll avoid the Ducks and square off against either Calgary or Vancouver. But if they slip back to seventh or eighth place in the West, an all-California first-round series with Anaheim will be set. And some hockey observers believe the Ducks' struggles of late make them a prime candidate to be turfed by a lower seed.
2. St. Louis vs. Chicago. If the Blues don't overtake the Predators for top spot in the Central Division and the Blackhawks stay in third place, Chicago and St. Louis will compete in the first round for the second consecutive season. The Blues fell to the Hawks 4-2 in the 2014 first round, but Chicago won't have injured superstar winger Patrick Kane to turn to this time, and St. Louis has a deeper and more dangerous squad. And if you like your first-round showdowns to end with the losing side crushed by an early exit, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better series than this one. Either the Hawks go home and probably make significant changes after regressing in the post-season for a third straight year, or the Blues are devastated again and ponder significant changes. That's what high stakes are all about.
1. New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders. Come on now. Does this one need a lot of explanation? This is one of the greatest rivalries in league history, and the Islanders are in their final season in decrepit Nassau Coliseum. Who wouldn't want to see the Rangers in that arena one more time and watch a young Isles team attempt to upset the defending Eastern Conference champs? Forget about best-case scenarios – the playoffs won't be all they can be if this series doesn't take place.