Realistic Stanley Cup Playoff Matchups NHL Fans Would Love to See in 2014

Steve MacfarlaneFeatured ColumnistApril 5, 2014

Realistic Stanley Cup Playoff Matchups NHL Fans Would Love to See in 2014

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    The 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs are just around the corner, with a new format pitting wild-card teams against division winners and realignment sticking new teams into different conferences to build fresh rivalries or possibly expand on old ones.

    There are plenty of great teams set to do battle, but we'd be lying if we said all series are created equally. A good rivalry involves well-matched teams, some bad blood from the past and strong coaching personalities help, too.

    Click ahead to see some of the possible matchups for this spring that will have NHL fans on the edge of their seats until June.

Round 1: Boston vs. Toronto

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    Why it's appealing

    Who could forget the first round of last spring's postseason? Especially Game 7, when Maple Leafs fans everywhere were joyfully celebrating a stellar effort before the disaster of the final 90 seconds or so turned what would have been a massive celebration into a mass suicide watch.

    Every time the two teams have met in the regular season in the months since, that pivotal clash is recalled. None more closely than the April 3 clash when the Leafs gave up a two-goal lead in the third period but this time pulled off the overtime victory to keep their playoff hopes alive.

    There's something compelling about a playoff collapse so epic that it spawns a rivalry that would only become more intense with another postseason battle.

     

    How it can happen

    First, the Leafs have to qualify by winning the remainder of their games and hope for a little help from the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have a game in hand and the tiebreaker of more games won in regulation or overtime.

    If they make it in, a first-round matchup with the Bruins will be the Leafs' destiny.

Round 1: Anaheim vs. Los Angeles

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    Why it's appealing

    It's the hockey equivalent of the MLB's Subway Series. The Kings and Ducks are just a 45-minute bus ride away from each other, which means not much travel and the ability to beat the living crud out of each other on the ice for 60 minutes every second night.

    Both teams are physical and feature strong goaltenders, but the aspect of a dynamic offense led by Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry against a top defensive group led by center Anze Kopitar and blueliner Drew Doughty might even get some of the eastern hockey fans staying up late to watch the West.

    Aside from one lopsided decision this season, their games against each other have all been decided by a single goal with one more to come on April 12.

     

    How it can happen

    For it to take place as an opening-round matchup, the San Jose Sharks would have to pass the Ducks for the top spot in the Pacific Division. The Ducks hold the tiebreaker by a wide margin and are clinging to a one-point lead with a game in hand, so the Sharks need to finish strong or the Ducks have to slightly stumble.

     

Round 1: St. Louis vs. Dallas

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    Why it's appealing

    Dallas is an up-and-coming team with strong forward depth not unlike that of the Blues. A few years behind with plenty to learn, this is a matchup that offers a possible look into the Stars' future.

    It also pits a couple of savvy veteran coaches against each other with the Blues' Ken Hitchcock and the Stars' Lindy Ruff.

    At first glance it might seem a mismatch, but the Stars have played well in the second half of the season and have actually claimed the last two head-to-head contests against the powerhouse Blues with one more showdown April 11.

    Young players like Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin need this stage to continue to rise as faces of the franchise and of the league.

     

    How it can happen

    The Blues are untouchable at the top of the Western Conference standings, but the Stars are battling the Phoenix Coyotes for the final playoff seed. With a couple of games in hand over the Coyotes and a one-point deficit, the Stars have a good shot at qualifying for a first-round series against the possible Presidents' Trophy winners.

Round 1: Pittsburgh vs. Detroit

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    Why it's appealing

    It used to be that these two teams could only clash in the Stanley Cup Final once the regular-season schedule was over. But with the Red Wings jumping to the Eastern Conference this season, the back-to-back Cup finalists from 2008 and 2009 could be battling for a chance to advance rather than to win it all.

    It's been five seasons since they met in the postseason, with the Penguins avenging the 2008 loss a year later. The Red Wings have overcome big injuries this year to stay in the hunt and look to be extend their incredible streak to 23 years of playoff attendance.

    If both teams are healthy and advance, this would be an incredible series featuring a couple of the most dynamic offenses in the league and some of the biggest names in the game, with Henrik Zetterberg (if he can return that early) and Pavel Datsyuk representing the Wings and Sidney Crosby and the currently ailing Evgeni Malkin leading the Penguins.

     

    What has to happen

    First, the Red Wings have to make the playoffs. But that's looking more and more likely. If they do and nothing changes in the current standings, then the two teams will meet in the first round.

Round 2: Boston vs. Montreal

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    Why it's appealing

    It's an Original Six matchup featuring two teams that have had some heated recent history as well. Anyone who believes these teams don't hate on each other when they play need only refer to the Andrew Ference middle finger as an example of even one of the nicest guys in the NHL going overboard with emotion when these two clash.

    There are examples of impressive hockey, too, with the Habs coming back from a 3-1 series deficit—a franchise first—in 2004.

    The Canadiens have also done well against the Bruins in the regular season; the Habs own a 3-1 record this year against Boston. That doesn't always translate over a seven-game series, but if goaltender Carey Price plays spectacular hockey, anything could happen.

    Either way, it would be entertaining.

     

    How it can happen

    They'd both have to win their first-round series. The Bruins could clash with Detroit, Columbus or Toronto, and the Canadiens are likely opening against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Round 2 : Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia

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    Why it's appealing

    The Battle of Pennsylvania has star power with the Flyers' Claude Giroux overcoming a tough start to his season to climb into the top six in NHL scoring. The runaway leader in that category is none other than the Penguins' Sidney Crosby.

    Aside from the personalities involved, these two teams genuinely hate each other, and rivalry games in the playoffs are incredible must-watch TV.

    Despite the lopsided slant in the standings, the Flyers are healthy and the Pens are dealing with multiple injuries to key players, so this would be a tight series. And with arguably two of the most unpredictable goaltenders in the postseason if this matchup is to take place, the Flyers' Steve Mason and Pens' Marc-Andre Fleury could make things even more interesting.

     

    How it can happen

    If the current standings remain unchanged, the Penguins would have to beat the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, and the Flyers would have to get past the New York Rangers.

Round 3: Boston vs. Pittsburgh

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    Why it's appealing

    Last year's series was such an abysmal flop on the part of the Penguins, it's almost hard to argue for a rematch. But these are the best two teams in the conference, and it's a matchup that is very intriguing for a couple of reasons.

    One is how the Penguins will play knowing how embarrassed they were a year ago during the sweep.

    Another is what Jarome Iginla will look like in the playoffs with the Bruins this time around after failing to  record a point with the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final after shunning Boston at the trade deadline in favor of the Pens.

     

    How it can happen

    They both have to win their first two rounds. On paper, that shouldn't be a problem, but anything can happen in the postseason.

Round 3: St. Louis vs. Los Angeles

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    Why it's appealing

    The Kings have bounced the Blues from the playoffs in consecutive seasons, so maybe this isn't the most promising matchup from a Blues fan's perspective. However, to be the best, you have to beat the best (or at least the best at beating you), and St. Louis is looking to take that leap to the Stanley Cup Final this year.

    There may not be a more physical and gut-wrenching series possible in the entire postseason, with both teams playing the kind of smothering style meant to wear out opponents minute by minute and then capitalize on offensive opportunities to pull out a victory.

    It would also feature Team USA's Olympic goaltenders—Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller—going head to head after the Blues acquired Miller specifically to move further along in the playoffs.

     

    How it can happen

    The opening couple of rounds of the Western Conference playoffs are going to be a bloodbath. While the Blues might have a mildly easier road into the second round having to take on a wild-card team in the opener, the Kings are likely going to face either the Sharks or Ducks in the opener and quite possibly the other of those California-based teams in the second round barring an upset. The Blues could face the Colorado Avalanche or the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in Round 2.

Final: Boston vs. St. Louis

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    Why it's appealing

    For one, they are the top two regular-season teams, with one just a few games away from claiming the Presidents' Trophy.

    Then there's the fact that they've been built in similar fashion and play with the same kind of determination and dedication to detail that is preached by coaches Claude Julien and Ken Hitchcock. 

    These two teams have the deepest forward ranks and roll four lines out regularly with scoring spread out. They also get contributions from the defense and have top-notch goaltenders.

    The edge may go to the Blues on defense, but it's slight. This is the ultimate Stanley Cup Final possibility this season.

     

    How it can happen

    The Blues and Bruins will have to play the way they have all season to become the best regular-season teams in the NHL—and do it consistently to come out on top over some quality opponents.