Geography is the big divider for NHL teams ever since the 1980s. Rivalries form in the east and west where teams in their conferences see each other far more than in the other. Teams play within their conferences throughout the entire playoffs until the Stanley Cup Final, where the conference champions meet up for a chance at the title. With the division realignment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, some teams will meet in the playoffs for the first time.
This provides a unique opportunity for both new and old rivals. Geographic rivals also have a chance to meet in the Stanley Cup Semifinal, or better yet, the Stanley Cup Final. Imagine the excitement surrounding a Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup Final. All four rounds have the potential for historical cage matches between teams that don’t like each other. Here’s a list of possible scenarios regarding the playoffs.
Battle of Canada: One Team to Rule Them All
The Scotiabank North Division formed because of border-crossing restrictions between the United States and Canada. The seven Canadian teams play nine or 10 games against each other throughout the season, so the familiarity is already there. Get ready for fireworks in the playoffs. Since these teams were split by conference, it doesn’t matter if it’s Montreal Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs or Edmonton Oilers vs. Maple Leafs, these first two rounds are merciless.
There is a special Canadian pride with its NHL teams, spawning rivalries with all seven. No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the Canadiens did in 1993. There is a 50% chance that one will make it to the Stanley Cup Final. Only one team can make it out of the second round to the conference final. The team that makes it out also will have the potential for two more rounds against other rivals not in Canada.
New Rivalries Form in the Central
Three teams from the west and five teams from the east now make up the 2020-21 Discover Central Division. Even with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings moving from west to east in 2013-14, this mix of teams from each conference will build new familiarities. Wait till these teams have a playoff series between each other. The Dallas Stars could meet up against the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, and/or Blue Jackets.
Vice versa with the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks. This mix of teams from each conference will build new rivalries. The Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning already have a playoff series against each other in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Rivals in the Central Division will likely continue long after everyone goes back to their original division.
Looking at the Stanley Cup Semifinal
Round 3 of this year’s playoffs will be the Stanley Cup Semifinal. One team from all four divisions will be in the “Final 4.” If the first place team in each division in terms of points percentage as of Feb. 16 are the teams that make it, the matchups would be as follows. The No. 1 Maple Leafs would play the No. 4 Florida Panthers and the No. 2 Bruins would play the No. 3 Vegas Golden Knights. Fans deserve a good series between teams that hate each other.
Even if the above-mentioned teams play in the Stanley Cup Semifinal, two new rivalries form between them. They don’t already need to be rivals when they play each other. Whenever they are deep into the playoffs, the level of intensity increases exponentially, going double for the Stanley Cup Final.
The Stanley Cup Final of Stanley Cup Finals
Picture the last 30 Stanley Cup Final matchups. East meets west in matchups that did not usually feature heavy rivalries. Some that come to mind were the Stars vs. Lightning in 2020, Bruins vs. Vancouver Canucks in 2011, and Oilers vs. Hurricanes in 2006. Every Stanley Cup Final team plays hard where even the losers haven’t lost in a 0-4 sweep in Round 4 since 1996. The concept of non-rivals competing might change for the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Final. Now imagine two teams that truly despise each others’ existence. The possibility of a Stars vs. Blues, Bruins vs. Maple Leafs, or other rivals should send shivers of excitement down hockey fans’ backs.
Playoffs When Everything Finally Gets Back to “Normal”
Teams don’t have to be geographically near each other to have mortal enemy status in their games. Whenever the COVID-19 Pandemic ends, the league can consider changes. The playoff format could use a little tweaking. The two best teams should play in the Stanley Cup Final. A Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals Stanley Cup Final would have been amazing, especially between 2016-18. In 2016, The No. 2 Stars played the No. 3 Blues in the second round while the No. 11 San Jose Sharks played the No. 14 Predators in the same round and conference.
It’s easier for teams to travel, but at what cost? One possibility is to have No. 1 play No. 16 in the first round, No. 2 play No. 15, and No. 3 plays No. 14 and onward. Keep the conferences the same for the regular season in terms of schedule length. This is not about fairness but giving opportunities like having the Philadelphia Flyers and Lightning play in the Stanley Cup Final. It is certainly something to look at because of where the league is at. Now is the time to experiment with change, even if it’s just for a season or two.
Waiting for the Playoffs
All four rounds have the potential to pit rivals against each other. The playoffs are still several months away and likely will not start at the scheduled time. Postponed games already fill the slate tacked on to the end of the season. Some of the Stanley Cup Semifinal and Stanley Cup Final is likely to run into the middle of July. The wait is worth it, especially for the potential in rivalries. Rivals provide great ratings should they meet up in a playoff series. Stars vs. Lightning, Penguins vs. Capitals, and Bruins vs. New York Rangers are just some of the rounds that need to happen. The possibility of a rivalry-centered Stanley Cup Final is worth dreaming about for nearly every hockey fan.