Credit the Vegas Golden Knights. They sacrificed themselves for the greater good.
That’s what the last couple of weeks of the NHL playoff chase have been about, right? Tracking that mess, and watching the expectations go from “Yep, they’ll be fully operational any day now,” to “Hmm, wait a minute,” to “Whoops, they’re done unless something ridiculous happens and also a quarter-step from full-on dysfunction.”
In any case, bless them. They provided drama where otherwise there would’ve been none. Alas, it’s time to focus on the teams that have kept it together long enough to actually qualify for the playoffs.
These are our eight most likely matchups headed into Tuesday’s game, based on Dom Luszczyszyn’s projections and ranked according to my (much more scientific) Spice Factor. It’s time to get excited about this stuff.
1. Minnesota Wild vs. St. Louis Blues
Likelihood: 100 percent
Spice factor: 9
Season series: 3-0 Blues | 16-12 Blues
Pros: Each season, the division-centric playoff format gives us a first-round matchup (or two, or three) that we don’t deserve. That’s the optimist’s view, at least. Have the conference’s second- and third-best point-getters earned the privilege to wait a little bit before running into each other? Yeah. Yeah, of course they have. It’s patently unfair that only one of these teams is actually going to, y’know, advance. And please — please — do not take this as an overall endorsement of the format. It made sense to try way back when, and it hasn’t been a full-on negative — those Penguins–Capitals matchups alone might’ve been worth it — but it’s time to either simplify (standard 1-8 seeding) or get creative (play-in tournament between the 7-10 seeds). You can’t conjure rivalries, nor can you devalue the regular season any more than it already has been. We’ve all been sleepwalking for the last couple of weeks. Enough is enough.
That being said, there are babies mixed in with this bathwater. It’s OK to have high expectations for Wild-Blues. Two top-five scoring teams — with zero regulation losses between them in their last 20 — is a tasty first course. We’re getting star power on both sides; Kirill Kaprizov vs. Vladimir Tarasenko is fun for a lot of reasons. We’re getting depth; 14 players in this series will have 20 goals or more, and that’s not including Matt Boldy (15 in 44 games). We’re getting an interesting set of regular-season results; the teams’ two April games both went to overtime. Minnesota’s storylines alone — adding Marc-Andre Fleury at midseason, making their last, best run before the cap situation gets ugly — are fascinating enough on their own.
Cons: For all those goals, neither team plays particularly high-event hockey. Minnesota is 17th in shot attempts per game, and the Blues are one spot behind. There’s slog potential if the goals don’t come early. Also — and I’m going to get killed for this because I get killed for it every Friday morning — it’s fair to worry about the Blues’ offensive production in a playoff atmosphere. A lot of their success is predicated on a 26.5-percent power play. That’s fine; score goals however you can. They’re not a bad five-on-five team, either; a goals-for rate of nearly 55 percent, over the course of a full season, counts for a whole lot. Some teams finish better than others. But if they hit a cold shooting streak — their expected goals rate is more than seven points below their actual rate — and if officials swallow their whistles, some of those goals are going to dry up, and the series is going to be shorter than any unaffiliated party would prefer. It’s not something I necessarily believe will happen — it’s just a concern.