NHL playoffs 2024: Ranking every first-round series by entertainment value

NHL playoffs 2024: Ranking every first-round series by entertainment value

Saturday marks the start of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and once the action gets underway, it won’t stop until a champion is crowned in June. For now, hockey fans can enjoy a feast of first-round action, which means multiple games every day for the next two weeks.

With a dizzying amount of playoff games on the schedule, it can be hard to know which matchups to prioritize. That’s where I will do my best to help by ranking each first-round series by entertainment value. That way, when you’re dealing with less important things like family, friends or work, you can know which games you might be able to skip and which ones you absolutely cannot miss.

When compiling this list, I tried to go with a gut-based approach that factored in storylines, star power, play style, rivalries and the potential for the series to go the distance. With so many intriguing matchups, sorting them into a definitive ranking wasn’t easy, but I managed to pull it off.

Before we dive in, I want to be very clear. All playoff hockey is good hockey, and you should watch every game of every series because the season will be over before we know it. Cherish what we have left of the NHL action.

That said, if you can’t spend every minute of every day watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs, here is every series ranked by its entertainment value.

8. Carolina Hurricanes vs. New York Islanders

If the Hurricanes were playing any other team, this matchup would probably be higher. Carolina is a Cup contender, and it’s a fun team to watch. However, we’ve seen this matchup a couple times in recent seasons, and I don’t really need to see much more of it. It’s not just that the series seems to be pretty uneven on paper. It’s also about play style. Since Patrick Roy took over behind the Isles’ bench, they have improved defensively. That’s great for the Islanders but bad for the back-and-forth track meets that occurred under former head coach Lane Lambert. This matchup just lacks some of the juice present in other first-round series.

7. New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals

The Presidents’ Trophy winners are taking on what might be the worst NHL playoff team ever — at least in the modern era. That would normally make this the least compelling matchup of the first round, but it is slightly elevated due to a few different factors. For starters, I have a morbid curiosity about how a team with a minus-37 goal differential will fare in the playoffs. Secondly, I’m not sure how many more times I’ll get to see Alex Ovechkin in the postseason, so I need to cherish this opportunity. Finally, the Rangers are loaded up front, and an offensive explosion is never far away.

6. Edmonton Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings

The NHL script writers really need to come up with some new material. These teams have met in the first round each of the last two postseasons, and the series have played out in very similar fashion. The Kings are able to do a decent job containing the Oilers weapons early, but the dam eventually breaks, and Edmonton goes on to win the series. Nothing about the 2024 edition of this matchup indicates that things will go any differently this time around. I will say, it will be intriguing to watch Pierre-Luc Dubois in the playoffs. In his first season with the Kings, Dubois has been a disappointment, but he can wash all that away with a big series against the Oilers. Dubois has shown the ability to elevate his game in the postseason before (see: Blue Jackets vs. Lightning, circa 2019).

5. Vancouver Canucks vs. Nashville Predators

The Norris Trophy votes have already been cast, but this series will allow Quinn Hughes and Roman Josi to settle it on the ice in the postseason. Hughes and Josi have been the two best defensemen in the NHL all season, and they will headline this first-round matchup. It should also be noted that the two main Jack Adams Award candidates — Rick Tocchet and Andrew Brunette — are behind the bench in this matchup. Maybe the NHL should just let voters watch this series before submitting their ballots. Add in the goaltending battle between Thatcher Demko and Juuse Saros, and this should be a fun clash. This may be No. 5, but it is a cut above the bottom three on the list.

4. Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Battle of Florida has quickly shot up the charts as one of the best rivalries in the NHL, and another chapter will be written over the next couple of weeks. One of the things that makes it so great is the vitriol. These two teams do not like each other, and I anticipate more than a few shenanigans after the whistle. In addition to the general seething hatred on both sides, there will be stars all over the ice. Nikita Kucherov just totaled 100 assists to go along with his 44 goals. Steven Stamkos might be playing his last season as a member of the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy is borderline unbeatable when he’s at his best. For the Panthers, Matthew Tkachuk hopes to provide an encore performance for last season’s playoff run. Aleksander Barkov is probably the best defensive forward in the game today. Sam Reinhart loves scoring goals, and he cannot stop doing it. I can’t wait to see how this matchup plays out.

3. Winnipeg Jets vs. Colorado Avalanche

Now we’re getting into the series that have some serious Game 7 potential. The Jets and Avalanche go about their business a little bit differently, but there are reasons to believe this matchup could go either way. The Avalanche have Nathan MacKinnon, fresh off a Hart Trophy campaign in which he put up 140 points while dominating play at five-on-five. Colorado also has bona fide superstars in Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar. The Jets may not be able to match up in that regard, but what they lack in marquee names they make up for in depth and elite goaltending. Connor Hellebuyck will likely be the 2024 Vezina Trophy winner, and Winnipeg has the ability to roll four lines and come at the Avs in waves. It’ll be fascinating to see these two different approaches go head-to-head, and there’s a good chance tempers flare as the series evolves.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Boston Bruins

We’ve seen this playoff matchup plenty of times before, but I don’t care. The history between these clubs only adds to the entertainment value. How close will Charlie Brown get to kicking the football before Lucy pulls it away? Will this finally be the time that Charlie boots it from under Lucy’s finger? The Maple Leafs have the big names. They have a 69-goal-scorer in Auston Matthews. They have dynamic playmakers in William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Unfortunately for Toronto fans, that hasn’t mattered in past years. The Maple Leafs haven’t beaten the Bruins in the postseason since 1959, and there have been six meetings since then. Avoiding seven straight playoff series losses to Boston will be tough. Bruins star David Pastrnak is at the top of his game, and their goaltending tandem is as good as it gets. That said, I do think the Leafs have the edge here. Can they finally get this bear off their back?

1. Dallas Stars vs. Vegas Golden Knights

Playoff matchups don’t get better than this, and I’m not just talking about first-round series. Conference finals. Stanley Cup Final. Doesn’t matter. This is a heavyweight fight between two Stanley Cup contenders, and one of them will be golfing by the time the second round begins. How about that for stakes? The Stars, perhaps the deepest team in the NHL, spent all year working their rear ends off to get the top seed in the West. That earned them a date with the Golden Knights, the defending champs and one of the only teams with the depth to rival that of the Stars. To make things even spicier, Vegas eliminated Dallas in the Western Conference Finals last season before going on to lift the Cup. Since then, both teams have aggressively upgraded their rosters. The Stars have brought Matt Duchene and Chris Tanev into the fold, giving them a boost at both ends of the ice. The Golden Knights have countered with acquisitions of Tomas Hertl and Noah Hanifin. The winner of this matchup will get a well-earned confidence boost heading into the conference semifinals.