With the NHL regular season rapidly approaching its conclusion and the playoffs on the horizon, the race in the Eastern Conference is setting the stage for a compelling opening round.
Entering competition on Wednesday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are the only teams guaranteed to enter the postseason with their current seeding. The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens are still battling for the Northeast Division title, while the New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets attempt to claim the final two playoff berths.
While several scenarios still need to be played out, the framework of a potentially intense slate of games could be on the way. Especially if the Ottawa Senators end up in the eighth seed.
It's no secret that Ottawa -- essentially, as a collective whole -- absolutely despises Penguins forward Matt Cooke. The Erik Karlsson laceration, the pleas to kick Cooke out of the league, Eugene Melnyk's forensic investigation, fan-made "Cooke Wanted"signs and an Ottawa journalist's questionable decision to write a story about an altercation with Cooke, is reason enough why Pens-Sens would be an entertaining matchup.
Factor in the talent on the Penguins roster, Sidney Crosby's pending return, Karlsson's potential return and the never-say-die mentality of the Senators, and you have a classic David and Goliath situation set against the backdrop of Ottawa's visceral hatred of Cooke.
Hard to imagine it would be a boring series.
If Boston ends up winning the division, the Bruins could find themselves facing the Rangers in an Original Six matchup. While New York failed to live up to preseason expectations, the Rangers certainly have a talented enough roster to manage a first-round upset, especially considering Boston's struggles of late (4-5-1 in their last 10).
In terms of the Northeast race, the team that ends up in second will be slotted into the fourth or fifth seed. This opens the potential of a division matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
If that's ultimately the case, many are hoping Boston comes away with the division title.
A first-round series between Montreal and Toronto would be an amazing draw for the league. Two Canadian market, Original Six teams squaring off would be television gold. The upstart Leafs against the surprising turnaround of the Habs.
Sprinkle in the excitement of Toronto's first playoff appearance since 2004 and you're ready to go.
When looking at New York's other playoff team, there is the potential of a first round meeting with the surging Washington Capitals. It's inaccurate to call the teams rivals, but they do have playoff history.
In 1993, the Islanders defeated the Capitals in the Patrick Division semifinal. In the clinching game, former coach Dale Hunter committed a turnover to Pierre Turgeon that resulted in a goal. While he was celebrating his goal, Hunter hit Turgeon. The result was a separated shoulder for the goal scorer and a 21-game suspension for Hunter.
Will it still resonate in the modern day? Probably not. However, the Capitals have Alex Ovechkin and the Islanders have John Tavares, which leaves the potential for an explosive new entry into this history.
Of course, it would be unwise to discount the Jets who still have a shot at squeaking into the top eight. Regardless of matchup, the playoff-starved Winnipeg fan base would be ecstatic about whoever their team had to meet. Considering the crowd's enthusiastic receptions for opposing players, teams and coaches, the playoff atmosphere would be wonderful in Winnipeg.
With only a few more days left in the regular season, it appears as though the Eastern Conference draw could be packed with intensity. While the seedings have yet to be cemented, the groundwork is set for a stellar opening round.