The NHL has the best start-to-finish postseason and that two-month journey to the Stanley Cup begins Wednesday night. Courtesy of a wonky playoff format, some of the league’s top teams will face off against each other right from the start, while others ward off an early upset. With a heated rematch in the East and a budding rivalry in the West, there’s potential for some must-see hockey in Round 1. But not every series will be quite as exciting, so here’s a ranking of the all the first-round matchups:
8) Calgary Flames vs. Colorado Avalanche
Avs winger Mikko Rantanen will return for Game 1 after missing the regular season’s final eight games, setting up an offensive showdown between two of the most dynamic lines in the entire NHL. On the backend, Tyson Barrie erupted for seven goals since mid-March to propel Colorado into the playoffs, while Mark Giordano bolstered his Norris campaign with Calgary. The Flames swept the season series against the Avalanche and shouldn’t have much trouble dispatching them in the first round, but an abundance of offensive fireworks is on the docket in this series.
7) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
This one doesn’t get interesting unless the Blue Jackets steal Game 1 at Amalie Arena. The Lightning are what they are: an up-and-down juggernaut with a sickening amount of talent courtesy of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Blue Jackets have played better while settling into their own identity and, yes, Sergei Bobrovsky is capable of stealing a game. Despite GM Jarmo Kekäläinen’s best efforts to equip Columbus for a deep playoff run, the Lightning are still too much. Tampa Bay owned the Blue Jackets, outscoring them 17-3 in three games (all played before the trade deadline).
6) Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars
Inconsistency plagued the Predators throughout the year but they ended the season hitting all the right notes. Pekka Rinne has been on fire since the All-Star break, P.K. Subban looks like P.K. Subban and everyone is finally healthy. But is this the team that shut out the Maple Leafs or the team that got smashed by the Jets and Blue Jackets? They’ll find out against the Stars. Ben Bishop has had a Vezina-caliber year playing behind Dallas’s staunch defense and the offense, highlighted by Alexander Radulov and Tyler Seguin, should be sparked by the return of Mats Zuccarello. Nashville doesn’t have it easy.
5) Washington Capitals vs. Carolina Hurricanes
The Storm Surge celebrations might be canned for the playoffs, but the magic that lifted the Hurricanes from worst in the Metropolitan Division to a wild-card spot isn’t over yet. Career years by 21-year-old Sabastian Aho and 24-year-old Teuvo Teravainen, along with a revitalized Petr Mrazek in net, transformed the Canes into one of the league’s best teams in the last half of the season. The Capitals, though, have been just as hot, won all four games against Carolina in the regular season and deadline additions Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen have the team geared up for another deep run. Regardless of what happens in the first two games, Game 3 will be electric when the league’s most lovable bunch of jerks returns home for the Hurricanes’ first home playoff game in 10 years.
4) New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Game 1 at Nassau Coliseum for the first time in more than three decades. The team that was left for dead after its franchise centerpiece left for Toronto. Barry Trotz vs. the Penguins redux. There’s a lot going for the matchup between the defensive-oriented Islanders and the never-dead Penguins. With Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Brian Dumoulin returning, Pittsburgh’s injury-riddled blue line should finally settle into place while Sidney Crosby looks to parlay his sixth 100-point season into playoff success. These two teams won’t provide the flashiest form of hockey but the series should be tight throughout.
3) Winnipeg Jets vs. St. Louis Blues
Defeated in last year’s Western Conference Final, the Jets were a popular preseason pick to escape the West and they were supposed to take the next step. That hasn’t happened. Dustin Byfulgien got hurt, Patrik Laine has slumped for extended stretches and the team has looked lifeless at times. Now, the Jets find themselves in a first-round matchup with St. Louis. The Blues, spearheaded by Ryan O’Rielly’s career year and stellar play in net from rookie Jordan Binnington, emerged from the cellar and have exploded offensively. Vladimir Tarasenko is healthy and playing his best hockey of the season. Winnipeg stalled all-out panic with a get-right win against the Coyotes to save home-ice advantage, but this is going to be an arduous battle that has all the makings of a seven-game series.
2) San Jose Sharks vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Erik Karlsson is back and healthy for the San Jose Sharks, and these two teams are destined for a slugfest after going six games in the second round last season. Brent Burns lead the Sharks’ season-long offensive blitzkrieg with the most points by a defenseman in 23 years while four of his teammates each scored 30 goals. Poor play in net has necessitated that the San Jose tacks on four or five goals a night. That’ll be difficult against the Golden Knights, who made the Western Conference’s biggest trade deadline gambit by adding Mark Stone. The Knights were already one of the league’s best possession teams, and Vegas’s new $76-million man only fortifies the team’s stingy play while adding renewed depth behind the top line. The Sharks and Knights split their two post-trade-deadline games and this postseason matchup should mirror that.
1) Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
This 2018 first-round rematch has been all-but inevitable since late February and, now that it’s certain, the Maple Leafs will look to avenge last year’s Game 7 third-period collapse. The Bruins improved defensively, enhanced their secondary scoring and played through this year’s injury storm without looking any worse, but the Leafs boast the greatest year-over-year upgrades. The addition of John Tavares, for one. Toronto didn’t have this Mitch Marner in last year’s series: the 21-year-old winger lead the Leafs in points and blossomed into one of the NHL’s elite forwards next to Tavares. Replete with talent, history and a dab of animosity, this series is can’t-miss hockey between two of the best teams in the NHL.