The NHL All-Star Game is just days away, which means the homestretch of the 2018-19 regular season is right around the corner. And that, in turn, means the playoff picture is starting to come into focus. Which, ultimately, brings us to the Stanley Cup final.
Who will survive the post-season gauntlets in the East and West and face off for the big prize? Here are 10 potential Cup final matchups, ranked by intrigue and entertainment value.
(Note: No team appears more than once on this list.)
1. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Winnipeg Jets
Is there any doubt that this would be a Grade-A matchup? The Lightning have been the best team in the league this season, full stop. And the Jets are pretty much the Lightning West, a star-studded outfit whose core has grown up together. These two high-octane teams are built for the playoffs, they’ve had a taste of post-season success and they’re poised to take the next step. Plus, I’ve already come up with the movie-poster tagline: “The only thing that stands in their way … is each other.” Pass the popcorn.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs vs. [insert Western Conference team here]
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but it’s been more than 50 years since the Maple Leafs have won a Cup. They haven’t even made it back to the final since their 1967 championship. Love them or hate them, you have to admit that’s a pretty compelling storyline. Not to mention, the Leafs can put the puck in the net, and they’ve got one of the best goalies in the game at the other end. Yes, they need to shore up their defensive play. But they’ve got a shot, and it’ll be one for the ages if they ever get back to the final. As for the [insert Western Conference team here], well, Toronto doesn’t really have a natural foe in the West and I didn’t want to force it. But how about Vancouver? They’ve never won a Cup, they’ve got an east-west rivalry with Toronto, and they’re a playoff-contending club that’s not represented elsewhere on this list. Leafs-Canucks? Hey, it would play in Canada.
3. Boston Bruins vs. San Jose Sharks
A nearly 40-year-old Joe Thornton going for his first-ever Stanley Cup against the team that traded him? Yes, please.
4. Washington Capitals vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Washington waited a long, long while for its first Cup. Vegas, on the other hand, barely had to wait at all for its first Cup appearance. And who doesn’t love a rematch? The best part is, whichever team comes out on top, we’d either get another summer of Alex Ovechkin celebration shenanigans or a non-stop Cup party in Vegas. It’s win-win.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Nashville Predators
Speaking of rematches, how about a sequel to the 2017 final? The Penguins are chasing the fourth Cup of the Crosby-Malkin era, the Preds are primed for their first. Not to mention, it’s a chance at playoff redemption for Pekka Rinne. One of the league’s best goalies for the past decade, he’s had more than his share of post-season wobbles, most notably against the Pens in 2017.
6. Calgary Flames vs. Montreal Canadiens
First off, let’s acknowledge the Flames are low on this list, considering they’re the first-place team in the West. Calgary appears to have everything in place for a playoff run, with the only Red Mile flag being their goaltending. Can they trust an aging-out Mike Smith and a relatively inexperienced David Rittich to come through when it matters most? Then again, you might’ve had similar concerns about Carey Price just a couple months ago. But the Canadiens’ all-world goalie appears to be back on top of his game, and that makes Montreal a threat to steal a series or four. The Habs and Flames, of course, have some history -- a rookie Patrick Roy led Montreal past Calgary for the ’86 Cup, then Lanny McDonald and the Flames exacted their revenge three years later.
7. Buffalo Sabres vs. Dallas Stars
The 2019 final marks the 20th anniversary of Brett Hull’s infamous ‘No Goal’ in triple-overtime of Game 6 to deliver Dallas its first Cup (and deny Buffalo its first title). The Stars haven’t won since and the Sabres are still looking for their inaugural championship. Of course, there’s a decent chance that neither of these teams even make the playoffs – and if they do, they’ll go in as long shots.
8. Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Minnesota Wild
The 2000-01 expansion cousins haven’t enjoyed much in the way of post-season success. The Wild had a shocking run to the West final in their third season of existence in 2002-03, but have only made it past the first round twice since then. The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, have never won a playoff round.
9. New York Islanders vs. Edmonton Oilers
Let’s go retro with an episode of “That ’80s Show(down).” Billy Smith and the Islanders defeated Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers for New York’s fourth straight Cup in 1983, then the Oilers returned the favor the following year as they embarked on their dynasty phase. Neither franchise has had much to cheer about for the past, oh, 25 years or so.
10. Colorado Avalanche vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Dream final? Well, maybe just in Denver and Raleigh. And perhaps there’d be a few interested onlookers in Quebec City and Hartford, too.