NHL playoffs: Stanley Cup Semifinals preview and predictions
Chris Peters previews both matchups in the Stanley Cup Semifinals, with the third round of the NHL playoffs now set.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a marathon, but it’s amazing how fast they seem to go when the hockey has been as good as it has this postseason.
With the Vegas Golden Knights eliminating the Colorado Avalanche, we’ve officially reached the Stanley Cup Semifinals, or what would normally be called the Conference Finals.
The stage is set for a unique final four, with three Eastern-based teams and one team from the on-hold Western Conference reaching this portion of the season. So, let’s take a look at the two matchups that will consume our days for the next week or two.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING VS NEW YORK ISLANDERS
On Sunday afternoon, the Lightning will host the Islanders in what amounts to a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Final.
Tampa Bay, of course, won that series in six games on their way to the franchise’s second ever Stanley Cup. That postseason, however, was played inside a bubble with no crowds, no real home-ice advantage. Now these two clubs will get a do-over with crowds in both of their buildings - loud ones, too.
These two teams in particular are very, very good on home ice. Each won 21 of 28 games on home ice in the regular season. The Islanders have won four of six and the Bolts three of five in the postseason in their own buildings.
Tampa Bay is largely the same team as it was a year ago, with a roster mostly unchanged, save for a few pieces here and there. The Islanders are a little different themselves, most notably missing captain Anders Lee who has resumed skating, but has missed most of the shortened season with injury. They have, however, added Kyle Palmieri, who has more than picked up the slack in the scoring department with seven postseason goals so far.
Meanwhile, this will be a matchup between two teams with some of the best goaltenders we’ve seen in the playoffs. The Islanders have two goalies over .925 save percentages in rookie Ilya Sorokin and seasoned veteran Semyon Varlamov, who patrolled the net in five of the six games against the Bruins to help the Isles advance. On the other end, the Lightning have one of the best goalies in the world with Andrei Vasilevskiy holding it down with a .934 save percentage, which is slightly behind Carey Price for the postseason lead. If the Lightning go all the way, you can make an excellent Conn Smythe case for Varlamov, who has been tested, but always gives his team a chance.
The fascinating thing about this series is that there is no question in my mind that the Lightning have top-to-bottom more talent – a lot more talent. However, the Islanders are going to give them a series. They have depth, they can defend and they’re getting the goaltending. It’s not going to be an easy series for the Isles by any means, but they’ve proven they can battle teams and use their depth to their advantage. It should be a great matchup.
In the end, the Lightning have a power play operating at nearly 42 per cent efficiency, which is cartoonishly good. They can send over one of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point at any given time and have an advantage over anyone the Isles have on the ice. That doesn’t even mention Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman, perennial postseason performer Alex Killorn, and a host of other skaters that have performed at a particularly high level in these playoffs.
As good as the Isles are, I have a hard time seeing them getting the better of the Lightning.
Prediction: Lightning in 6
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS VS MONTREAL CANADIENS
The Canadiens have been doubted by just about everyone in every series they’ve played and they just keep winning. Outlasting the Toronto Maple Leafs, coming back from a 3-1 deficit, was the confidence boost this team needed and propelled them to a four-game sweep of the Winnipeg Jets. It’s been a remarkable run and I do think they match up better with the Golden Knights than they would have with the Colorado Avalanche.
However, the Golden Knights are rolling right now and just took down the team that I felt very strongly was the NHL’s best this season. Their ability to shut down the Avalanche while not losing their offensive edge was so impressive. The Golden Knights play the style that can help you beat anybody.
The X-factor of the entire series, however, is Carey Price. Looking like his most dominant self for the first time in a long time, Price has been incredible. He owns an NHL-best .935 save percentage, and at times doesn’t even look like he’s breaking a sweat. He has the ability to steal games and that’s probably what the Habs are going to need, because they are going head-to-head with a battle-tested, battle-ready team.
The Golden Knights have been in existence for four years. They’ve been to the final four of the NHL playoffs three times, including last year in the postseason bubble where they ultimately fell to the Dallas Stars in five games. They’re also one of the best home teams in the league and will have home-ice advantage in this series. They won all three games in Vegas during the last series and I think you can pretty much pencil them in for home wins against the Canadiens.
I do think there is a gulf in depth between the two teams, too. That’s especially true if the Canadiens are without Jeff Petry, who injured his hand in the last series. If he can’t play, the Habs are going to have their hands full trying to defend a lineup with so many weapons of so many different varieties of skill. From the cerebral Mark Stone, to the sniper and former Habs captain Max Pacioretty, to the crafty Jonathan Marchessault to the burning speed of Alex Tuch. Not to mention defensemen like Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo, who love to jump into the play.
Montreal managed to get past some really good teams in Toronto and Winnipeg, but they haven’t seen anything like the Golden Knights yet.
Prediction: Golden Knights in 5
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