In the conference semifinals my prediction total clocked in at 3-for-4, as I took an “L” picking a Colorado team that eventually got Joel Kivi-ran off the ice in overtime of Game 7. Injuries, particularly in net, were not kind to the Avs.
Combine that prediction record with a 5-for-8 in the opening round and we’re still on the positive side of the ledger through two rounds. Time to take on the conference finals.
What’s hard about an exercise like this is we can’t help but be biased to recent events, and while Tampa hasn’t played in a while, the Isles' showing in Game 7 was that of a clinical UFC fighter submitting an opponent. It’s hard to call it a “fight” when one side never had much of a chance to throw a punch.
The Flyers were on the mat from the opening bell, face contorted with their opponent in control until it was all mercifully over. Thomas Greiss called it “the best defensive game I’ve ever seen the team play.” Despite Mathew Barzal going pointless, Barry Trotz said it was his “best game since I’ve been here.” At no point did it seem like the Flyers may score, let alone win.
And so, how can you watch that Islanders team and think they won’t take games off, well, anyone, Tampa included, in a best-of-seven series?
In the 2018-19 playoffs the Tampa Bay Lightning were eliminated in four straight games by a Columbus Blue Jackets team that choked the life out of them, too. They added some ground and pound players in the days between, but again this year Columbus gave them a heavy fight before Tampa persevered (the only game in that series that wasn’t decided by a single goal was the one Columbus took).
The Islanders are an awful lot like Columbus in make-up and style, but better.
I set up my commentary on this series with that framing because of one important note, which should stand on its own here.
The Lightning are the better hockey team, and I don’t think it’s close.
The Lightning should win, and if the luck is equal or falls in their favour, they almost certainly will. Heck, the Boston Bruins aren’t that dissimilar from the Blue Jackets in style, with the same “but better” add-on, and they couldn’t stop this Tampa Bay juggernaut. But this whole intro is an ouroboros of sorts, which should take you back to the very top now. I can’t shake what the Isles just did, and nobody is beating them like that without a bloody war.
At a glance...
Goaltending: Andrei Vasilevskiy has a .931 save percentage in the playoffs, Semyon Varlamov is a .921, Thomas Greiss is at .960 through three starts. There’s almost nothing to be gleaned here, particularly because we have bigger samples sizes for everyone. But in a nutshell, both teams have goaltending. I’d say Tampa has the best guy (his “on” is as good as any goalie’s “on” in the world), but the Islanders have two guys who can play and play well. No blood here.
Defence: Both teams were top-10 in goals against per game in the regular season (eighth and ninth), and are now second and third in the playoffs. Now, they accomplish that wildly differently. The Lightning are a top-five team in controlling shot attempts in their games. The Islanders were third-worst in the NHL there in the regular season, ahead of the Red Wings and Devils. They just block a ton of pucks and force a ton wide by staying in shooting lanes.
Offence: With what we know from above, safe to say the balance of the play is going to be in the Islanders' end this series. It’s just going to be a matter of Tampa finding a way to not just be there, but to actually score. They have to get to the inside. Of course, the Bolts scored the most goals in the NHL this season. The Islanders were one of three teams who made the league's 24-team “return to play” series despite being in the bottom-10 in goals.
Of the remaining teams, no one has scored more goals per game than the Isles, who’ve racked up 3.38 per contest. And nobody’s scored less than the Lightning, who are still at a pretty decent 3.00 goals per game clip, but it’s fun to phrase them as the “worst offensive team remaining in the playoffs by this one particular stat,” so let’s do that. (I imagine if Tampa had played Florida, Washington and Philly, and not Columbus and Boston, those numbers might look a tad different.)
Special teams: Exactly what you’d expect here. Both teams were mid-pack or marginally better on the PK in the regular season. Tampa’s power play was eighth overall, while the Islanders was 24th. In the playoffs both power plays have been pretty meh (around 17 per cent, so Tampa has more to give there), and both PK’s have been within spitting distance of 82 per cent, which is a hair on the good side of average.
Narrative forces: I’ll allow you a “rest versus rust” debate here, as Tampa’s had a few days off. You could also go with “offensive team versus defensive team” if you like. There was a time where you’d have thought of Tampa as skill and speed, and the Isles as “heavy,” but with names up front like Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow, Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, Brayden Point, Cedric Paquette, Pat Maroon...this Tampa Bay team has proven it has a share of grit too.
Health: The Bolts are still awaiting the return of Steven Stamkos, though we have no real update on when he could be back. It seems like Nikita Kucherov will be a go for Tampa too, as he’s been skating. As is the case with most teams that make it this far in playoffs – nagging injuries, bruises and the rest aside – both teams are pretty healthy.
And so the pick…
Tampa Bay in 6. There doesn’t seem to be a style of play they can’t handle at this point, and that includes the Isles' heavy, defence-first play.
I made Stars Twitter upset when, in the wake of a Game 7 OT winning goal, I lamented the loss of Nate MacKinnon and the injured Avs rather than lauding the play of the Stars. I absolutely should’ve let the Stars have their moment, should’ve given Kiviranta his due for his insane performance, and celebrated the winners. And we’ll get to doing that here.
I make no apologies for the point itself, however. The way MacKinnon was playing was like watching peak Tiger Woods roll over “competition,” and greatness is something to behold. But you don’t beat greatness by chance, and the Stars did a lot of things well, including “score a million times,” something they weren’t exactly known for in the regular season.
Coming from the other corner, the Golden Knights and Canucks brilliantly re-enacted the Monty Python “Black Knight” sketch, in which the Canucks played the part of the armless, legless foe, continually taking on damage yet unwilling to step aside and admit defeat.
These two teams won a series in seven games to get to a conference final that starts...oh my, it starts Sunday evening. We better get into the rest of this, then.
At a glance...
Goaltending: The Vegas goaltending situation is worth an article itself, but that’s not what we’re doing here. What we will do is note an edge in the crease for the Knights, assuming we’re looking at Robin Lehner versus Anton Khudobin most games. If Ben Bishop is able to get back and can be at the top of his game, it’s a different story. But that’ll be tough to find given how his return-to-play time has gone so far, with an injury and a few shaky appearances. If Marc-Andre Fleury gets in a handful of times, this conversation changes too.
So for now we’ll say that Khudobin is coming off a series where he didn’t look particularly comfortable, and has a .909 save percentage in return-to-play action so far. Lehner is coming off a shutout (with an insane save) and is at a .918 save percentage. He has to be feeling good given the vote of confidence that came from head coach Peter DeBoer with the Game 7 start. Yes Khudobin can be solid. But for my money Lehner is one of the NHL’s best right now.
Defence: This is where the Stars are supposed to thrive, having posted the league’s second-best goals against per game in the regular season, allowing just over 2.5 each contest. Vegas was pretty good there too (2.94, 13th in the NHL), but again, this is supposed to be the Stars' bread and butter. Of the remaining teams left, though, Dallas has been the worst defensively, allowing a full 3.5 goals per game, including totals of 6, 4, 6, and 4 and in their last four outings.
More than anything, we know this is something the Stars can be good at, and the Avs are just a great offensive club. So we’ll give them the nod here.
Offence: Vegas isn't the Avs on offence, who were the best offensive team in playoffs (four goals per game), and the league’s fourth best team there in the regular season. The Golden Knights were 13th in-season, averaging 3.15 goals per game.
Still, 13th in the league isn’t bad – they can score - particularly when contrasted with Dallas’ standing of 26th there. Dallas scored just shy of 2.6 goals per night in the regular season, worst of any of the 24 play-in teams not named Columbus.
Dallas has flipped that on its head in playoffs though, scoring over 3.3 times per game, second-best of the remaining teams in playoffs. They have depth, and it feels like offence can come from any number of players any night. I think we’re forgiven some skepticism this will continue, though, given those totals have mostly come against the Calgary Flames (a bottom half defensive team this year), and the decidedly not-starting-NHL-goaltending of the injured Avalanche.
Special teams: Everything was pretty middle of the pack in the regular season -- both teams had power plays that were around 21.5 per cent, and Dallas’s PK was around the usual 80 per cent. (Always remember the special teams rule of adding the PK and PP together, with 100 being about average on special teams. Dallas checks that “100” box off a bit better). But Vegas’ PK struggled for a good team, killing off just 76.6 per cent of power plays faced, meaning they trail a bit in this category.
In the post-season there’s been two spikes: Vegas has gone from killing at a 77 per cent rate to 88 per cent, and Dallas’ PP has gone from a 21 per cent unit to a nearly 29 per cent success rate. I’m guessing one of those two “improvements” is about to come back down to earth.
Narrative forces: If you squint, you can call it another “offensive team” (Vegas) versus a “defensive team” (Dallas), but given what we’ve seen in playoffs I’m not sure that holds up. Dallas can glom on to the “plucky underdog” label that coaches desperately fight to earn, which tends to foster some dangerous “nothing to lose here” play. They’ve certainly got the “nobody believed in us” tag we hear numerous eventual champions espouse.
Health: Ben Bishop hasn’t seemed entirely healthy yet, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be ready to go in the days to come. Andrew Cogliano and Taylor Fedun are still listed as day-to-day for Dallas. Vegas' Ryan Reaves will be suspended for a game.
And so the pick…
Vegas in five.
The Stars have tons to love outside their biggest names. Radek Faksa is so effective, Roope Hintz is a force, Denis Gurianov is one of the most underrated players in the NHL today. They’re solid top-to-bottom (to say nothing of their best player, Miro Heiskanen), and are awfully hard to beat if they play well.
But I do question their “game-breakers,” their elite guys who are supposed to help them power through when the games get thick. If Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn aren’t doing it, how often can the Joel Kivirantas pull them through? I have my doubts about Seguin and Benn.
Vegas is so well-rounded, and can play the game any way their opponent wants to go. I like their depth, I love their intelligence (guys like Mark Stone and Paul Stastny are elite thinkers), and I love the way their D can impact the play by jumping in the rush.
It wouldn’t stun me to see Dallas win two and take it six games -- any more than that though, and I’ll be legitimately surprised.