For people who don’t watch a lot of regular season hockey (which is just about everyone), the Stanley Cup Playoffs can look like nothing more than a bunch of long-haired, toothless dudes knocking into each other during the commercial breaks of the NBA playoffs. While this isn’t an entirely inaccurate description, playoff hockey is an incredible experience, one which a fan of any sport, or just happiness in general, can and should appreciate.
Still, I understand that it can be daunting to pick what to watch, especially in the early rounds. Because of this, I outlined the two best series to watch in the first round of the battle for Lord Stanley’s Cup, and one to avoid entirely. While they may not feature the very best teams in the league, they offer some of the most competitive games and best storylines of mid-April hockey.
#2 Edmonton Oilers- #3 San Jose Sharks
Tied at 1-1, this series is shaping up to be one of the more competitive series that we’ll see in the first round. Throughout the regular season, there were times at which it seemed like both of these teams had the strength to take the Pacific Division, but neither of them could move past the Ducks in points. All the better for us, since we get to enjoy them early on in the playoffs.
Why you should watch the Oilers: It’s been a long time since there was relevant hockey being played in Edmonton, wherever the hell that is. In the 11 years since the team fell in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, they lost Chris Pronger, were part of their very own reality TV show, and won zero Stanley Cup Playoff games. Now that they’re back, though, their fans are going wild, and it’s a joy to watch. The team’s playoff tickets sold out in just five minutes, and they also sold out tickets to watch Game 3 in Rogers Place, 1,500 miles from where the game will actually be played in San Jose. Watching the Orange Crush cheer, do the wave, and yell “ref you suck” during their Friday night win was a real treat, and I only hope that the Edmonton faithful get more excited as the series goes on.
Oh, and there’s also a little someone called Connor McDavid.
Why you should watch the Sharks: Unlike their first round opponent, the Sharks are no strangers to recent success. They won the Western Conference last year, ultimately falling to the Penguins in the Final, and you have to think it left a bad taste in their mouths that the Sharks will work hard to clear out. The Sharks are also home to some of the most disgusting wildest beards in all of sports in Brent Burns and Joe Thornton. Burns was effectively shut down on Friday night, and turned the puck over in the final seconds of the game in a play that should have left Edmonton up 3-0, but fans can and should still look to the defenseman if for no other reason than the chance that one of his live animals crawls out of his facial hair.
Joe Thornton also creates an interesting storyline to follow in the series. A knee injury from the regular season kept the center out of the first two games, but his coaches say that he is a game-by- game decision. Thornton is a workhorse who has only missed 10 games in his last 10 years, and if he comes back to lead the Sharks to victory, it will certainly be a sight to see.
Player to Watch: Connor McDavid, the sensational Oilers captain and should-be Hart Trophy winner for this season. McDavid scored a shorthanded goal in Game 2 of the series, a brilliant play that showcased his speed on the ice and ability to read defense, and there’s no question he’s got a few more of those up his sleeve. Also, he’s only 20. He’s basically your player to watch for the next decade, so you should start now.
#1 Montreal Canadiens- WC1 New York Rangers
First off, this series shouldn’t even be happening this early, but the new and completely illogical NHL playoff pairing system has led us to two of the best teams in the entire league facing off in the first round. Still, it’s an Original Six matchup of two great Eastern Conference teams, so who am I to complain?
Why you should watch the Rangers: This might be the year Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers finally do it. Of course, it could also very well be like every previous year, and we could watch them sputter out and keep the Swedish goalkeeper winless (you won’t find any complaints from me, a Flyers fan). Having said that, this is a very good Rangers team, and you shouldn’t let their Wild Card spot fool you. They had 102 points in the regular season, and if they hadn’t been playing in the historically-good Metropolitan Division, they would have secured a higher seeding, and a more favorable first-round matchup. For reference, the Canadiens, who they’re facing in the first round, won the Atlantic Division with just 103 points.
Coming out of the Wild Card spot, this Rangers team, with something to prove and aging stars whose trophy rooms are missing just one thing, is not one to miss.
Why you should watch the Canadiens: This is a Canadiens team that didn’t even make the playoffs last year, but went on to win their division this year (albeit with the lowest points total of any of the four division winners). Their turnaround can be credited to an incredible offensive year by Max Pacioretty, who led the team in offense with 35 goals and 32 assists, and goalkeeper Carey Price, who flexed a .923 save percentage in 62 games.
No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the Canadiens themselves did it in 1993, and it is unlikely that the 24-year drought will end this year. Still, the Canadiens are a balanced team that shouldn’t be taken lightly by anyone in the bracket. Also, if the Canadiens win and the Bruins win their series, then head coach Claude Julien will face off against his former team in the second round in what will be guaranteed fun.
Player to Watch: Henrik Lundqvist. The brilliant Swede has been at the center of the Rangers franchise for the last 12 years, and at 35, is not getting any younger in his quest to finally raise a Stanley Cup. His play only seems to get better in the playoffs as the stakes rise, and fans should expect some of his signature jaw-dropping saves in the coming weeks.
Series to Avoid: #2 Pittsburgh Penguins- #3 Columbus Blue Jackets
First off, you should avoid this series because, by its very nature, watching it increases your chances of seeing Sidney Crosby score, smile, or even exist. Like I said, avoid at all costs. What’s more, it’s really a shame that the Blue Jackets, who have been a great story all year long and even won 16 games in a row, one game shy of the NHL record, have to play the Penguins in the first round. Their opponents are just too good, and I don’t see the Blue Jackets putting up too much of a fight in this one. You know that feeling when you see something terrible going on and there’s nothing you can do to stop it so you just look away? That’s what you should do if the Penguins-Blue Jackets game is on. Change the channel to QVC or something. Walk your dog. Do some yardwork. Anything is better than watching the Penguins win.