If the NHL playoffs started today: The matchups and what to expect in each series

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Credit where it’s due: The NHL has provided us with a pretty solid playoff push.
Was that true in 2022-23? Absolutely not. Certain matchups felt like they’d been locked into place since folks were doing their holiday shopping. This time, though, plenty is up for grabs with 18 days remaining on the schedule.
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• Six teams are within five points of the No. 1 overall seed Rangers. Everyone loves a good Presidents’ Trophy race.
• Just two potential first-round matchups have a greater than 50 percent likelihood of actually taking place, according to Dom Luszczyszyn’s model.
• The Red Wings are out at the moment, but they’re still within spitting distance of the Capitals and Flyers for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
There’s more, too. Which matchups would we get if the playoffs began today? How likely are those to hold? What could we expect if they do? Let’s get into it.
Eastern Conference
(M1) New York Rangers vs. (W2) Philadelphia Flyers
Likelihood via Dom Luszczyszyn: 25 percent
A first-round Torts Bowl? That’ll work. From an on-ice standpoint, though … eh. The Rangers are an elite team entering the stretch run on an absolute tear, and the Flyers — much as some of us have enjoyed their accelerated return to relevance — seem like they might be circling the drain. We’ll say this, though; Philly’s body of work as a five-on-five team isn’t awful. They’re seventh this season in expected goals rate and 12th in expected goals for. The Rangers, respectively, are 24th and 25th. If the Flyers got a few lucky bounces and some competent goaltending, you could see them keeping it close at five-on-five. Those are, of course, major “ifs,” plus the Rangers’ high-end skill and special teams make their five-on-five rate stats matter a bit less.
Remaining schedules: Rangers — PIT, NJD, @DET, MTL, @NYI, PHI, NYI, OTT
Flyers — NYI, @BUF, @CBJ, @MTL, @NYR, NJD, WSH
(M2) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (M3) Washington Capitals
Likelihood via Dom Luszczyszyn: 47 percent
A losers’ point against Boston on Saturday night was enough to lift the Capitals out of the second wild-card spot and into a tie with the Flyers in the Metropolitan Division. They’re in this spot because of tie-breakers — and it almost makes sense that they stick. It’s been said plenty of times: They’re bad at nearly everything other than winning one-goal games, and how much that’ll help in a playoff series remains to be seen. Still, they’re 6-2-1 in their last 10 and have outscored their opponents in that span (29-28). The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are seventh in goals per game since the trade deadline and first in goals against. Good luck to whichever Metro team has to deal with that in Round 1.
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Remaining schedules: Hurricanes — BOS, WSH, CBJ, @BOS, STL, @CHI, @CBJ
Capitals — @BUF, PIT, @CAR, OTT, @DET, @BUF, TBL, BOS, @PHI
(A1) Boston Bruins vs. (W1) Tampa Bay Lightning
Likelihood via Dom Luszczyszyn: 39 percent
The Bruins, all things considered, probably would rather see a different first-round opponent. The “Florida team rounding into shape at the exact right time” archetype hasn’t been favorable for them. The Lightning, thanks in part to improved team defense, Andrei Vasilevskiy’s quasi-return to form and their current 9-1-1 tear, has the first wild-card spot in a vice grip. The Bruins, meanwhile, have a shot at another Presidents’ Trophy, but that schedule won’t do them any favors.
Remaining schedules: Bruins — @NSH, @CAR, FLA, CAR, @PIT, @WSH, OTT
Lightning — DET, @TOR, @MTL, @PIT, CBJ, OTT, @WSH, BUF, TOR
(A2) Florida Panthers vs. (A3) Toronto Maple Leafs
Likelihood via Dom Luszczyszyn: 41 percent
The second-most likely Eastern matchup — among the current set of projections, at least — might be the most interesting. The Panthers bounced Toronto in the second round last year as an underdog. If they meet again, that won’t be the case; Florida is deeper, better and shouldn’t need Sergei Bobrovsky to steal the series. The Leafs’ stars, meanwhile, would get another shot at figuring him out.
Remaining schedules: Panthers — @TOR, @MTL, @OTT, @BOS, OTT, CBJ, BUF, TOR
Maple Leafs — FLA, TBL, @MTL, PIT, @NJD, NJD, DET, @FLA, TBL
Western Conference
Likelihood via Dom Luszczyszyn: 26 percent
The Stars’ Jake Oettinger problem appears to have been solved; after a long stream of sub-mediocre play, he’s put up a .942 save percentage in his last five starts and won them all. Dallas has needed that return to form, too, given how well the Avalanche are playing behind them in the Central. Starting the playoffs as the top seed in the West might not be the prize it was on track to be a few months ago, but a matchup against the Kings is still better than the alternatives. If Oettinger is on his game, it’s tough to imagine the Kings — a mediocre goal-scoring team — having the firepower necessary to compete.
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Remaining schedules: Stars — EDM, @CHI, @COL, BUF, WPG, SEA, STL
Kings — @WPG, SEA, @SJS, VAN, @ANA, CGY, ANA, MIN, CHI
(C2) Colorado Avalanche vs. (C3) Winnipeg Jets
Likelihood via Dom Luszczyszyn: 66 percent
As we said, the Avs have torn it up of late, clinching a playoff spot on Saturday despite their inability to make up ground on the Stars. A little lineup balance can go a long way. Winnipeg, meanwhile, has hit the skids. The Jets have one point in their last six games and scored just 10 times. That fact, combined with five remaining games against postseason-projected teams, will make the Central race even more interesting.
Remaining schedules: Avalanche — @CBJ, @MIN, @EDM, DAL, MIN, WPG, @VGK, EDM
Jets — LAK, CGY, @MIN, @NSH, @DAL, @COL, SEA, VAN
Likelihood via Dom Luszczyszyn: 28 percent
The Predators missed out on a golden chance to close even more ground on Winnipeg thanks to two straight regulation losses, but the prize for moving out of the wild-card spot is likely to be the Avs. Maybe staying put is the better outcome. That’s not meant as a knock on the Canucks, either. Lots of other teams would be in the same spot. Three of their remaining eight games are against surefire lottery teams, too, so they’ll have a shot to start the playoffs on a solid note.
Remaining schedules: Canucks — @VGK, @ARI, @LAK, VGK, ARI, @EDM, CGY, @WPG
Predators — BOS, STL, @NYI, @NJD, WPG, @CHI, CBJ, @PIT
Likelihood via Dom Luszczyszyn: 43 percent
It’s increasingly likely that should Mark Stone return for the first round, he’ll do it against Connor McDavid. That’s interesting on its own. Mix in the fact that this is a rematch of last year’s second-round matchup, which Vegas won in six games, and you’ve got yourself something nice. Not long ago, Vegas seemed to be stuck in a wild-card spot. Since the trade deadline, they’ve gone 8-2-1 and jumped Los Angeles in the Pacific Division. The biggest threat to this (as a first-round matchup, at least) might be the Oilers. If they keep up their current level of play, and if the Canucks stay in neutral, Edmonton will have a shot at the division title.
Remaining schedules: Oilers — @STL, @DAL, COL, @CGY, VGK, ARI, VAN, SJS, @ARI, @COL
Golden Knights — VAN, @ARI, @VAN, @EDM, MIN, COL, CHI, ANA
Eastern Conference standings
Western Conference standings
GO DEEPER NHL bold predictions — pass or fail: What we got wrong (and right) in our preseason picks
(Photo of William Karlsson and Connor McDavid: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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