After an action-packed first two rounds of the NHL playoffs, four teams remain, each with a chance to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Here is a preview of the Eastern and Western Conference Finals matchups.
Eastern Conference Finals: New York Islanders vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
This year’s Eastern Conference Finals features a clash between two opposites. The Tampa Bay Lightning were one of the league’s strongest teams during the regular season, and have been for the past several years. Their lineup is full of speed and skill, up front and on defense. High skill forwards such as former league MVP Nikita Kucherov and emerging young star Brayden Point have carried the Bolts in the absence of their injured captain Steven Stamkos. On the blueline, Mikhail Sergachev has logged big minutes, and perennial Norris Trophy contender Victor Hedman has been a workhorse, scoring the series clinching double-overtime goal against the Boston Bruins in round two. Head Coach John Cooper and company handled the Columbus Blue Jackets in round one, winning the series in five games, before making a statement against the much-hyped Bruins in round two by winning the series in five games as well.
On the other hand, the New York Islanders have surprised many in reaching their first Eastern Conference Final since 1993. During the regular season, the Isles found themselves right on the cusp of playoff contention throughout, and qualified for a play-in series against the Florida Panthers, which they won three games to one. Nobody represents their identity as a hockey club better than Head Coach Barry Trotz, whose emphasis on a hard forecheck and full team defense has carried the team past his former club, the Washington Capitals, and the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers. The Islanders won those series in five games and seven games respectively. To carry out this hardworking structure, the Islanders have relied on depth throughout their lineup. Forwards such as the team’s bruising captain Anders Lee and the young, explosive Matt Barzal have been dominant. A young, puck-moving defensive core with the likes of Devon Toews, Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock has been steady. And in net, the team has relied on both Semyon Varlomov and Thomas Greiss to compete.
Though the Islanders have looked dominant at different points throughout the playoffs, Tampa is simply the better team and the team with the most motivation. Remember when Virginia Men’s Basketball lost to No.16 UMBC as a one seed and then won the entire NCAA Tournament the following year? In similar fashion, the Lightning were embarrassingly swept by Columbus in last year’s first round after winning the President’s Trophy. They will continue to use the pain from a season ago as fuel for their fire.
Tampa in six.
Western Conference Finals: Dallas Stars vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas’ success during the regular season has transitioned seamlessly into the bubble this postseason. After being hired in January, former New Jersey Devils and San Jose Sharks bench boss Pete DeBoer led the Golden Knights to a first place finish in the Pacific Division. Though Vegas may not boast a bonafide superstar on its roster, they are arguably the deepest team in the NHL. Wingers Mark Stone and Reilly Smith have been dynamic at both ends of the ice, and have posted 15 and 13 points respectively in 15 games. But the team leader in points for the Knights thus far has been an emerging star on the blueline: Shea Theodore is averaging more than a point a game as a defenseman, and has made highlight reels across North America with a filthy goal against the Vancouver Canucks in Game Five. In goal, the team utilizes a one-two punch of Robin Lehner, who was acquired midseason, and three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury. Vegas defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round in five games, and beat the Canucks in seven in round two.
Quietly, the Dallas Stars were one of the stronger teams in the league during the regular season and have turned a lot of heads in the playoffs, defeating the Calgary Flames in six games and the Colorado Avalanche in seven. The team relies on a combination of highly skilled veteran leaders and emerging young depth pieces. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Joe Pavelski and Correy Perry are all former NHL all-stars who are looking for their first cup in the later stages of their careers. However, it has been the incredible play of 21 year old Miro Heiskanen that has captivated the hockey world. The Finnish defenseman has tallied 21 points in 16 games this postseason and is third in the league in playoff scoring. On top of this, the Stars have found unlikely players who have stepped up in critical roles during these playoffs. Backup goalie Anton Khudobin has been solid down the stretch in replacement of the injured three-time Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, and in Game Seven against the Avalanche, it was Joel Kiviranta who scored a hat-trick including the overtime winner, after only scoring one goal in the regular season.
Vegas has looked like the stronger team of the two throughout the playoffs. But they beat relatively thin teams in Chicago and Vancouver to get to this point. The Knights will not be ready for Dallas, who took down the heavily-favored Avalanche to the surprise of many. The Stars’ veteran hunger for a ring will carry them to the final.
Dallas in seven.