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Does The Road To The Stanley Cup Lead Through Florida … Again?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Well, the NHL did it — we’re (mostly) done with one of the weirdest regular seasons in hockey history, and it’s finally time to get Cup Crazy:

The playoffs are every hockey fan’s favorite time of year, and now we even know when the playoffs will be, which is nice. To drop the puck on our chat, what first-round matchup catches your eye as the best and/or most competitive? 

terrence.doyle (Terrence Doyle, contributor): Caps-Bruins for me, Neil.

emily (Emily Scherer, designer): Let’s just start with the Bruins chatter per usual, Neil!

neil: Yeah, I’m not surprised by this at all, LOL. But I think it’s actually warranted, at least!

According to our playoff odds, it’s the most uncertain of the first-round series, with Boston holding a slim 51-49 edge.

terrence.doyle: I think that’s about right. Very much feels like a coin toss.

neil: All of the metrics are just SO evenly matched for these two teams.

terrence.doyle: It’s also a bona fide rivalry at this point. There’s a fair amount of hate there (especially directed toward Tom Wilson); the Bruins’ old captain is a Capital now; the Caps beat the B’s in a Game 7 the year after the B’s won the Cup, kind of upsetting the balance of power in the East. It’s probably gonna be pretty nasty…

emily: I’m excited to see how the Bruins deadline moves will turn out in the playoffs. Mike Reilly has been a help for the Bruins’ questionable defense, and what more is there to say about Taylor Hall?

He’s had 14 points in his 16 games as a Bruin. I can’t be the only person thinking about how wild it is that 10 years after the Bruins last won the Stanley Cup (bolstered back then by contributions from rookie Tyler Seguin), they could be back trying to take it all with the other top draft pick from 2010 giving the team that extra boost.

I love narratives!

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terrence.doyle: The narrative is strong with this one!

Hall has been a revelation. Nice of the Bruins to finally give David Krejčí another actually good hockey player to play with. I think about Dave’s career and get angry each time I speculate about how many assists he could have had if he’d ever been given a top goal scorer. Or, at least given one consistently. (Old Jarome Iginla was probably his best ever linemate if you don’t count the time he’s played with David Pastrňák.)

neil: I also like those midseason moves that upend what would be clear strengths/weaknesses from the full-season stats. Like, on paper, Washington has the offensive advantage — they were fifth in goals per game to Boston’s 13th-place ranking. But maybe Hall changes that! And of course, the Capitals made their own move when they picked up Anthony Mantha (who was not quite as prolific as Hall post-deadline, but offers them a different playing style).

A hockey player splayed out on the ice and an orange background, with a word bubble that reads “Carter Hart and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Season.”

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terrence.doyle: Yeah, I think we all pretty much thought the Bruins won the trade deadline, and agreed that the Capitals were maybe more of a mixed bag (although I like Mantha for their style of play). I think the trade deadline moves could make all the difference for the Bruins. I think they’ll edge the series, if just. Probably goes to seven games, and probably takes a year off my life.

emily: Agreed, I think this will be a long one.

neil: OK, if Bruins-Caps is the series to watch for its even matchup, what do you think is the best potential upset currently brewing for the first-round?

terrence.doyle: Habs over the Leafs?

If only for the historical element…

neil: Leafs fans would die.

terrence.doyle: Hahaha, they would not be happy. Sorta like this:

(I don’t think it’s going to happen, fwiw.)

emily: Toronto has dominated the North, but it’s the Leafs so … who knows!

terrence.doyle: Heard it’s been a while since they won a Cup.

emily: Toronto has to at least hold out any implosion until the potential Auston Matthews-Connor McDavid second-round matchup.

terrence.doyle: Honestly — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — I wouldn’t mind if Toronto won the Cup this year because it means Jumbo Joe would get to retire with a Cup. Getting my Wario “I’ve won, but at what cost” meme ready.

neil: Haha. This is definitely the best Leafs team in a very long time. So that means it’s either the right team to end the drought, or the biggest chance for heartbreak yet.

terrence.doyle: Bet on the latter.

neil: That bet usually pays off.

emily: In terms of actual upsets, I guess either way the first playoff Battle of Florida plays out, it’ll be an upset?

terrence.doyle: Yeah, that’s a good shout.

neil: Yeah — do we really consider it an upset if Tampa Bay (No. 3 in the Central) beats Florida (No. 2)? The Panthers outplayed the Bolts this regular season, but the Lightning are still the defending champs.

emily: Or is it an upset if the Panthers beat the Bolts?

terrence.doyle: I think it’s more of an upset if 2 beats 3 here, tbh.

Defending champs, probably the most talented roster, yada yada yada. 

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neil: Although the fact that Victor Hedman is playing through an injury and will need offseason surgery is concerning for them.

emily: They also will be getting Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov back, but after so long out, I have to think that won’t be a smooth transition.

terrence.doyle: The … bad season is bad.

I’d like to see the Panthers make a little run. Fun, young team. Would be cool to see the Florida teams win it back to back. hOcKeY hAs FiNaLLy mAdE iT iN aMeRiCa.

Joel Quenneville just keeps proving himself as one of the great all-time coaches, too. Bringing a Cup to Miami would cement the legacy.

neil: They will have to bring out the plastic rats in full force for that.

terrence.doyle: That had to be the most unlikely run to a Cup final in my lifetime.

emily: Just remember to follow the Panthers plastic rat playoff etiquette.

neil: “When can I throw my rat?” … “Do I need to sneak my rats in?” … Truly the questions that I always wondered about but was too afraid to ask.

emily: Right there alongside, “When can I throw my catfish?”

terrence.doyle: It’ll be an interesting matchup in a lot of ways, but especially because the Panthers create a lot of high danger scoring chances and the Bolts give up a lot of high danger scoring chances. So it could come down to how well the Bolts are able to adjust, or how well Andrei Vasilevskiy plays.

neil: So yeah, let’s talk about the goaltending factor, since the NHL playoffs often feels like the Tournament to Decide the Hottest Goalie. What’s a team that maybe doesn’t look like a favorite on paper but could steal a first-round series through goaltending? 

The Preds with Juuse Saros, Emily??? 

emily: The Predators closed out their season (and clinched!) with two wins against their first-round opponent in the Hurricanes. The second, after they clinched, featured both teams sitting many of their stars, and yet Nashville played well in what was likely the Pekka Rinne Farewell Show, sending him off with his 60th NHL shutout.

I don’t know if they’ll be able to steal it, but I feel like the team (and the fans!) got a little burst of confidence there that at least this series will go longer than most expected a week or two ago. Could they pull it out?? Maybe!

terrence.doyle: They’ve been one of the better teams in the Central over the past 10 games or so, so why not?

(Also, just peeked at the standings to see who is playing well lately, and there are eight playoff teams with at least seven wins in their last 10. Lotta hot teams entering these playoffs!)

emily: I think one aspect of this postseason that is so hard to predict is these teams know each other real well going in, given just how often they’ve played each other throughout this weird season. They’re all familiar with each other and each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

neil: That’s a great point. Teams are going to have those “familiarity breeds contempt” matchups in each of the first two rounds, on top of all the regular-season games, which is just so much hockey against the same opponent.

One last note on goaltending — we were talking about McDavid and the Oilers a little earlier, but their matchup with the Jets is another one where maybe Connor Hellebuyck can be a difference-maker if he stands on his head against Connor and company. But Mike Smith has been surprisingly great in net for Edmonton, too. (And I do want to see that potential McDavid-Matthews Round 2 showdown.)

Anyway, we’ve talked about the closest and most exciting-looking first-round battles. What series is the biggest mismatch of Round 1?

terrence.doyle: Whichever team finishes on top in the West — the Avs or the Knights — vs. the Blues, IMO.

emily: Good call.

Two hockey players jockey past each other on the ice

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terrence.doyle: The Blues are … not a very good hockey team, whereas the Avs and Knights have the best and second-best odds to win the whole damn thing going into the playoffs.

neil: St. Louis and Montreal are the only playoff teams with a negative goal differential this season. And unlike the Canadiens, the Blues aren’t facing the Leafs — Vegas and Colorado are 1-2 in goal differential, too. 

terrence.doyle: They’re also, unsurprisingly, 1 and 2 in terms of the percentage of 5-on-5 high-danger scoring chances in their favor, whereas the Blues rank 28th. Not a great look considering the Blues have worse than league-average goaltending.

My hot take: The Blues will not win the Stanley Cup this year.

neil: But hey, you might have said the same thing midway through the 2018-19 season!

terrence.doyle: Please, don’t remind me.

neil: Haha. Sorry! But no, I think you guys are right. The 1-vs.-4 in the West is probably the most lopsided matchup of Round 1, no matter whether Colorado or Vegas wins that division.

Finally, before we end the chat, I’m curious what you each are looking to see in Round 1 that will help inform your thoughts on the rest of the playoffs. Or, put another way, what’s one big question about the playoffs overall that you each want answered in Round 1?

terrence.doyle: The Hedman injury and the nature of the returns of Stamkos and Kucherov could determine whether anyone else actually has a chance, or whether this is still the Bolts’ world and we’re all just living in it.

But also, we didn’t talk about that Crosby guy. His team looks, uh, very good after looking very, very mediocre early on. IMO, the Pens could sorta quietly be the team to beat. They score a ton of goals (the third-most per game), and they have all that experience and KNOW HOW.

neil: It was pretty impressive to see them shut up all those early doubters — like me! — and actually win that division.

terrence.doyle: Yeah, agree. The top four teams in the East sorta beat up on each other all season, so it still feels like a tossup. But I think the Cup might just go to whoever gets out of the East.

emily: I’m curious to see how the season’s weird structure will net out. Will we see any big upsets on some of the clearer collision paths that have been set up (Leafs/Oilers, Avalanche/Golden Knights)? Will the familiarity help or hurt teams? These have basically all become rivalries, so it’s sure to be fun.

I mean, let’s be honest though. My real question is how many different things we’ll see thrown on the ice this round.

neil: I’m currently bookmarking that rat-etiquette story so I’ll know exactly what to do when the opportunity presents itself!

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Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Emily Scherer was FiveThirtyEight’s senior designer.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.