With the semifinals already underway, let’s get to a quick recap of the action so far and predictions on who will be playing in the Stanley Cup Finals in the coming weeks.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Islanders
This is a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, featuring very similar rosters to the ones that competed last Summer in the Edmonton bubble. Most notably, the Isles have added veteran forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac while their captain forward Anders Lee is unavailable with an injury. Tampa Bay comes in with a few new depth pieces like forward Ross Colton and defensemen David Savard, but the core of the team is completely intact and looking to repeat as champs.
Again, the Islanders find themselves as the underdogs. First against the Penguins, then against the Bruins, the Isles were not supposed to win but have proved themselves as legitimate contenders for a second year in a row.
Now they are facing their largest obstacle on their way to the promised land. If they are going to get over the hump and compete in the finals, they must find a way to conquer Tampa Bay, something they were unable to do last year. They came out strong in the opening game of this series and played a textbook tight-checking game, holding Tampa Bay to just one goal, which was scored in the dying minutes of the third period. A smooth breakaway tally courtesy of forward Mat Barzal and a seeing-eye bomb from defenseman Ryan Pulock were enough to oust the Bolts on their home ice by a final score of 2-1. Stealing the opening game of a series on the road is monumental and puts the Isles in a position to succeed for the rest of the series.
There was no way the Lightning were going to head to Long Island down two games to none, though. They were the better team for most of Game 2 and escaped with a 4-2 victory to even the series. The forecheck of the Lightning was strong and drew penalties all game long. Forward Nikita Kucherov was excellent with three assists and their defenseman finally got involved in goal scoring, with both Jan Rutta and Victor Hedman potting goals in the third period. Mat Barzal for the Isles and forward Brayden Point of the Lightning are both red hot for their teams, scoring in each of the two games played. Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was up to his usual antics in Game 2, shutting the door on numerous scoring chances and keeping the Lightning on top.
Prior to the series starting, I picked the Islanders to win. Barry Trotz is the best coach in the NHL and his team is excellent at luring the opponent into turnovers and pouncing on their opportunities. In Game 1 they played their system perfectly and got the result they wanted. In Game 2, however, Tampa Bay was able to get them out of their system and into the penalty box too often. To beat the reigning champs, the Isles will need three more near-perfect performances. Something about this team feels different than the one that lost to the Bolts in the same spot last year, so I am sticking with my pick. You’ll want to tune in to see the madhouse that is Nassau Coliseum on Thursday night, trust me.
The New York Islanders will defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games.
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Montréal Canadiens
If the Islanders are underdogs in their series, then the Montréal Canadiens are super underdogs in this one. Coming in as the fourth seed in the much joked about North division, no one expected the Habs to accomplish anything noteworthy this postseason. Somehow this team is now competing for a ticket to the big dance against a Vegas team that tied for first in the league in the regular season and took down the Stanley Cup favorite Colorado Avalanche in the second round.
Similar to the Islanders, if the Canadiens are going to win this series, they will need to play a perfect game four times and even then, they also need goaltender Carey Price to stand on his head and steal a few games. In Game 1, the Habs got out to a great start, dominating play for the opening ten minutes, but they weren’t able to score. By not capitalizing on their chances, they let Vegas get to their game and they never looked back. The Golden Knights looked faster and stronger for much of the tilt, claiming a 4-1 victory on home soil.
I imagine the game was quite a culture shock to the boys from the North, who have been playing in empty barns for almost all of this season. The most fans that attended one of their games this year was 2,500 before they walked into the T-Mobile Arena freak show. For the first time in 18 months, the Habs played in front of a sold-out crowd with over 18,000 in attendance.
Vegas is no doubt the better team top to bottom. If the Canadiens are going to win this series, they will likely need to get top defenseman Jeff Petry back from injury. Tonight must be viewed as a do-or-die game for the Habs because going down 2-0 against Vegas is not a hole they can dig themselves out of. Both goalies in the series are world-class and were excellent in Game 1. I expect that to continue tonight in Game 2, a game that should be closer than the three-goal margin from two nights ago. Watch for Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme to make some adjustments tonight in hopes of turning the momentum in the away team’s favor.
Before puck drop for Game 1, I picked the Canadiens to win the series. Not because they are the better team, but because they have the feeling of a Dallas Stars team from a year ago that somehow just beat opponent after opponent despite the fact that they were consistently viewed as a weaker squad. The chances are slim, but I won’t back down now. I was 4-for-4 in the second round, here’s to hoping that continues and we get the ultimate underdog final of the Islanders against the Canadiens!
The Montréal Canadiens will defeat the Vegas Golden Knights in seven games.