It's still a little too early to pin down exactly which teams will be squaring off when the playoffs begin in less than two weeks, but that hasn't stopped us from imagining some dandy first-round, head-to-head matchups. Here are three we'd like to see:
Connor McDavid versus Joe Thornton
The Pacific Division is pretty fluid, but it looks like the Anaheim Ducks will finish on top -- which would likely set up an interesting first-round matchup between the San Jose Sharks, the defending Western Conference champs, and an Edmonton Oilers team that is making its first playoff appearance since reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 2006.
The Oilers will of course be led by their first-year captain, McDavid, a Hart Trophy hopeful and likely scoring champion who, at age 20, will be getting his first taste of playoff experience. On the other side of the ledger -- and quite possibly the other side of the faceoff dot, not to mention the opposite end of the league's age spectrum -- will be 37-year-old former Sharks captain Thornton.
I had a chance to chat with Thornton recently. He talked about the hunger to finish the job after being bested by the Pittsburgh Penguins in San Jose's first trip to the finals last spring. Thornton's numbers are a bit down this season, even though he joined the 1,000-assist club, making him one of only 13 players to do so. But look for Thornton, who had 21 points in 24 postseason games last year, to bring it once the puck drops in the playoffs.
Auston Matthews versus Erik Karlsson
It looks like we're headed for another Battle of Ontario. How much fun would it be to see two players who should factor very much into the end-of-season trophy discussion square off?
Matthews, the first-overall pick in June, hasn't disappointed, establishing a Toronto Maple Leafs franchise record with 35 goals as a rookie and leading the Leafs to just their second postseason berth since the 2004-05 lockout. Toronto will need the 19-year-old to score for this young team, just as the Ottawa Senators will depend on Karlsson, their captain and two-time Norris Trophy winner as the league's best defenseman, to stop it. Both of their teams would be surprise participants in these playoffs.
The interesting part about Karlsson is that his game is much more well-rounded than it was when he won the Norris the first two times. The 26-year-old leads the league in blocked shots, with 201, while collecting 68 points in 75 games and remain in the discussion for the Norris and the Hart trophies.
Sidney Crosby versus Sergei Bobrovsky
Speaking of folks in the hunt for postseason hardware, there's no question that Crosby, the defending playoff MVP, and Bobrovsky, a former Vezina Trophy winner, will factor into the Hart and Vezina voting, respectively, this season. They'll also likely face each other in the first round of the playoffs in what should be an epic clash between Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins and Bobrovsky's Columbus Blue Jackets -- two of the top four teams in the league. (Memo to NHL execs: It's probably time to rethink the playoff format when this happens.)
With fellow center Evgeni Malkin nicked up, it's possible that the Penguins' captain, who leads the league with 42 goals, will once again shoulder the brunt of the offensive load. No team has won back-to-back championships since the Detroit Red Wings did so in 1997 and 1998. Although the Penguins certainly have the horsepower to make a good run at back-to-back Cups, they could face a huge challenge just getting out of the first round -- especially since Columbus, which leads the Penguins by two points, currently has the inside track on home-ice advantage.
Crosby and his running mates will have to be at the peak of their powers if they're going to get the better of Bobrovsky, who has not just become the front-runner in the chase for the Vezina but should also earn some Hart Trophy consideration, given his league-best 41 wins and top-ranked .935 save percentage. Sure, the Blue Jackets lack the experience of Crosby & Co. -- but you'd have to give the nod to Columbus in goal.