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Ranking the 8 opening-round series of the NHL playoffs

Julian Catalfo / theScore

Playoff time is upon us, which means an overwhelming wave of anxiety is beginning to settle deep within the hearts, minds, and stomachs of hockey fans across the world.

Sixteen teams are vying to make that tension worth it by lifting the Stanley Cup by the end of the spring. However, they'll need to survive the opening round first to get there.

Here, we rank the eight series, focusing on watchability and vibes to decide the order. Let's get into it.

1. Boston Bruins-Toronto Maple Leafs

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Come on, is there another option for the top spot? We think not. This is what dreams are made of - or nightmares, if you root for the team in blue. The Atlantic Division rivals have battled in the opening round three times since 2013. Each meeting has stretched to seven contests, with Boston coming out on top every time.

Why this rematch is exciting for Leafs fans: Hey, maybe they'll finally slay the dragon - the big, bad Bruins who have haunted them since Patrice Bergeron's Game 7 overtime winner 11 years ago (it was 4-1!). The most recent postseason clash between Toronto and Boston came in 2019, and only five players from that Maple Leafs team are still on the roster: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly. Things are totally different now!

Why this rematch is exciting for Bruins fans: There's no better way for Boston to recover from last year's first-round upset than drawing a matchup against the team it has been psychologically torturing for years.

Why this rematch is exciting for everyone else: If Toronto falls flat on its face and returns to first-round futility, you'll get to point and laugh at Leafs fans while crafting some dastardly burns on X, if that's your thing.

We see this as an absolute win. The content machine stays fed regardless of the result.

2. Florida Panthers-Tampa Bay Lightning

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Rivalries - both historical and geographic - went a long way in determining our rankings. The last time the Battle of Florida took place in the playoffs, the Lightning spoiled the Panthers' Presidents' Trophy campaign with a second-round sweep, and there was no shortage of bad blood. While the animosity will likely remain the same, there's a new dynamic between the two teams now.

In 2022, the Bolts were the class of the league, fresh off back-to-back Stanley Cups and on their way to another finals appearance. The Panthers, then coached by Andrew Brunette, were an offensive force without an in-your-face mentality. Paul Maurice has since transformed the club into a defensive juggernaut, and Matthew Tkachuk's arrival helped make the Cats mean. Tampa Bay isn't nearly as dangerous at five-on-five anymore, but its special teams can swing any game.

On top of these two clubs generally detesting each other, the talent between both squads makes for appointment TV. Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, and Sergei Bobrovsky squaring off against Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy is just about as good as it gets this spring.

3. Winnipeg Jets-Colorado Avalanche

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The Jets and Avalanche don't have any sort of longstanding rivalry (yet). But this series features two of the league's best teams and matches up an unstoppable force (Nathan MacKinnon) against an immovable object (Connor Hellebuyck) that'll likely determine which squad advances through what should be a nail-biter.

Colorado led the league in goals this season, while Winnipeg allowed the fewest. This matchup is essentially a coin flip and should highly entertain fans. Although Hellebuyck's brilliance forms the Jets' identity, Winnipeg boasts four deep lines and should benefit from securing home ice, where the club went 27-11-3 this season. Conversely, Colorado was 19-16-6 away from Denver in 2023-24.

The Avalanche are the far more dangerous team on paper and ice, but goaltender Alexandar Georgiev is their clear X-factor. Going up against the likely Vezina Trophy winner is a daunting task, and Georgiev will need to improve on his .897 save percentage - particularly if he doesn't get the run support he's used to.

This series exemplifies why most hockey fans are fed up with the league's playoff format. Pitting the conference's second- and fourth-best teams in the first round can be seen as unfair, especially when the West's fifth- and seventh-place squads face off in another series. It makes little sense, but the NHL has no intention of changing how things work. We might as well enjoy the elite matchups that come out of the flawed format, even if they're earlier than they should be.

4. Dallas Stars-Vegas Golden Knights

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The Stars and Golden Knights are set to lock horns again in a rematch of last year's Western Conference Final. This feels like an unlikely 1-seed versus 8-seed matchup, but the defending champs lost a step in the regular season. That said, Dallas can't be thrilled about its draw, as Vegas is rife with championship pedigree and at full strength again with captain Mark Stone in the picture. It should surprise no one if the Golden Knights get hot as soon as the real season begins.

The Stars are among the deepest teams in the NHL, icing a roster with a perfect blend of youth and experience. Dallas was also a top-10 squad in expected goals for and against per 60 minutes during the regular season, and it feels more equipped than ever to go on a championship run. But the Stars must knock off the titleholders if they want to become the new Western Conference powerhouse.

5. Vancouver Canucks-Nashville Predators

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This series might be the biggest mystery box of the first round. We may look back in two weeks (or less) thinking this matchup was the most exciting one.

Many of the questions surround the Canucks since no one seems to agree if they're legitimate contenders or not. The answer to that question through the season's first few months was yes, but their 17-12-4 record since the All-Star break puts them in the middle of the pack. Vancouver still finished atop the Pacific Division but had battled for first in the league earlier in the winter.

The Predators rank third in the NHL in points percentage (.726) with a 21-7-3 record since early February. While Roman Josi and Filip Forsberg were machines during that run, the Canucks have more star power at their disposal with J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, and Quinn Hughes.

Nashville is the more battle-tested team in playoff experience in recent years, but will that matter if a now-healthy Thatcher Demko continues playing at a Vezina-caliber level for Vancouver? Discounting Juuse Saros wouldn't be wise, either. Though he hasn't dominated consistently, he was strong down the stretch to help the Preds get here.

Is it too late for Predators GM Barry Trotz to buy tickets to The Sphere in Las Vegas again and promptly cancel the trip? Hey, it resulted in a 16-0-2 run for Nashville the last time he did it.

6. Edmonton Oilers-Los Angeles Kings

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We'd be justified in moving this one up a few spots due to the mere presence of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and the fact that they go Super Saiyan mode in the playoffs, but we've seen this movie before.

Like, is there anything else on?

This is the third straight spring that Edmonton and Los Angeles have met in the opening round. The Oilers won the first two meetings, and beating the Kings to start the playoffs could become a tradition for Edmonton by this point. Unless L.A. has somehow found a way to slow down the best player in the league and his homies, we'd put our money on the Oilers winning again.

Edmonton should also be highly motivated. In eight seasons of McDavid doing McDavid things, the Oilers have made the conference finals only once. Last spring, the club lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champs in the second round, and Draisaitl dubbed Edmonton's year as a "failure or a wasted season, almost" as a result. The club's mantra heading into 2023-24 was essentially "Cup or bust," and we wouldn't want to get in front of that train.

What does L.A.'s offseason look like if it loses to the same team again? Does GM Rob Blake spend his entire summer crafting the squad into bloodthirsty, Oilers-killing machines? Well, the Kings won't have to worry about that if they finally get over their Edmonton-shaped hump.

7. New York Rangers-Washington Capitals

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This one has some potential to get spicy, but our hopes aren't high. When has the second wild-card team in the Eastern Conference ever upset the Presidents' Trophy winners in a first-round meeting?

Oh, right. Just last year, actually.

Still, it's a tough thing to do, and we aren't confident in the Capitals' ability to pull it off, so we've put this series in the basement. For one, Washington rocked a minus-37 goal differential in the regular season - the worst mark by a playoff team since 1990-91. Led by overlooked Hart Trophy candidate Artemi Panarin, the Rangers ranked seventh in the league with 3.39 goals per game.

That isn't the most favorable matchup for the underdogs. And even if goalie Charlie Lindgren can stave off New York's attack, he'll still have to outduel Igor Shesterkin, who can enter Vezina Trophy mode at any moment.

And Shesterkin might not have the toughest workload. The Capitals' 2.63 goals per game was the fifth lowest in the NHL this season. Washington also ranked 30th in shots per game (26.5).

We can never discount the Alex Ovechkin factor, but the 38-year-old sniper might not be able to will his team through this one.

8. Carolina Hurricanes-New York Islanders

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Unless you're a fan of squads that roster a Sebastian Aho, it's tough to find much excitement in the second straight running of Hurricanes-Islanders in Round 1. Last year's series didn't provide many fireworks, and this one is heavily lopsided in Carolina's favor again.

The Canes have been white-hot since the trade deadline and appear more motivated than ever to finally get over the hump and reach the Stanley Cup Final. Carolina is far better than the Isles at five-on-five and special teams, and it has more talent on forward and defense. There's a reason the Hurricanes are the odds-on favorite to win it all.

The Islanders have been a considerably better team under head coach Patrick Roy - who might be this series' best hope at quality entertainment - but this is a huge mismatch in his first playoff series at the helm on Long Island. It'll be on Roy to motivate his troops to make this a close battle and prove our rankings wrong.

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