Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “The Quick and the Dead” once pondered if it was “possible to improve on perfection” after outdrawing a fellow duelist in the town square. I think about that quote often. Not just because it deserves placement in the pantheon over “are you not entertained?!” as an all-time cinematic swagger line, but because it’s applicable to my struggle with the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The NHL postseason is perfect. Four brutal rounds whose victor wins a battle of attrition, having earned the right to have their names forever etched onto sports’ holiest of grails. We can quibble about the details — they could call a few more penalties, especially in those marathon overtimes — but, functionally, the Stanley Cup playoffs are the greatest tournament in professional team sports.
But to answer Leo’s query: Yes, it’s possible to improve on perfection.
I’ve banged the drum for years on playoff expansion — it’s nonsensical to have half the league miss the postseason. But even if there isn’t an appetite for the kinds of play-in games from which the NBA and MLB are currently minting money, there are other ways to innovate the playoffs.
Like scrapping the conference format, for example. Granted, seeding teams 1-through-16 might be too radical for the NHL, and it doesn’t feed into the league’s stated desire to have as many rivalry matchups in the postseason as possible. I get that. But reseeding the final four teams, as the league did last season during its COVID-impacted realignment, makes too much sense. The teams were seeded by their standings points percentages, which gave the regular season extra credence. The reshuffling of the final four also allows for traditional and geographic rivals to play for the Stanley Cup — imagine those Detroit Red Wings vs. Colorado Avalanche blood-feud series with the Cup on the line, rather than the chance to play for it?
Alas, the NHL chose not to move ahead with “conference finals” reseeding. It’s East vs. West this postseason, once again.
Fret not, playoff progressives. Maybe our day will come. For now, we’ll just have to settle for watching this chaotic and hypnotic tournament captivate us for the next two months.
Here are 50 potential 2022 Stanley Cup Final matchups, organized into our hype tiers. With the Western Conference playoff seeds yet to be settled, we included any team that has a better than 50% chance of making the cut. Please note that these matchups assume teams are at the height of their powers, and do not take into account recent results.
Let’s start with the DiCaprio of playoff tiers…
The five best matchups
1. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Colorado Avalanche
The Lightning would attempt to become the first team to three-peat as Stanley Cup champion since the New York Islanders in 1984. The regular-season champion Avalanche, finally having broken through to the championship rounds, would sit four victories away from completing Nathan MacKinnon’s Ahab-like quest for the Cup.
There are teams in the mix with higher casual fan Q-ratings, but few that have the talent and execution of these hockey titans. From stakes to gameplay, the best matchup on the table.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Edmonton Oilers
The Leafs seek to end the longest Stanley Cup drought in the NHL (53 seasons) only to find Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl carrying the hopes and dreams of 31 other fan bases that want Toronto’s misery extended in perpetuity. The co-main event: McDavid vs. Auston Matthews, two players entangled in a raging “best player in the world” debate, both seeking to raise the Cup for the first time — the Zoomer version of Gretzky vs. Lemieux.
Oh, and the winner becomes the first Canadian team to capture the Stanley Cup since 1993. That, too.