The Stanley Cup Semifinal matchups are set... just like we all predicted, right?
Through two rounds of playoff hockey, we've seen several post-season heroes emerge, including some netminders who have been simply unsolvable. Here's a look at the players in the Conn Smythe conversation as we head into the final four.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
As Carolina Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour made his way through the handshake line after being eliminated by the reigning Stanley Cup champs, he took an extra few moments when he got to Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Asked by reporters post-game Tuesday night about what was said, the bench boss had this to say:
"I’ve been around a long time. That’s kind of what I said. I’ve seen a lot of goalies that were good, but he’s as good as anyone that I’ve ever seen. I go back to Dominik Hasek and how he affects the team the way they can play. He makes it look easy. Dominik Hasek made it look hard. We had a lot of great looks tonight, and they looked like nothing because he was in the right place or whatever. That’s what I told him."
You simply cannot heap praise much higher than that. And as consistently strong as Vasilevskiy is -- .934 save percentage, 2.24 goals-against average through 11 playoff games with just three losses to his name this spring — he has consistently saved his best games for the biggest moments. Dating back to last year, he has now posted a shutout in three consecutive series-winning games: Tuesday’s Game 5 against Carolina, Round 1’s Game 6 against Florida and Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against Dallas to hoist the Cup. That's a feat that's never been done before.
As the Carolina Hurricanes just learned, there’s simply no shutting down — or shutting out — Nikita Kucherov. After putting up three goals and 11 points in six games against the Florida Panthers in Round 1, the star forward didn’t take long to apply that same kind of skill against the Hurricanes.
After being held to just one assist through the first two games, it felt like just matter of time until he found a way to grab hold of the second-round series: he registered a pair of markers and four assists for six points in Games 3, 4 and 5 to close out Carolina. Kucherov leads the league in assists (13) and points (18) this post-season, and his 1.64 points-per-game pace through 11 contests is tops among players still in the race.
The worst thing you can do against Tampa Bay? Give them a power play. Taking a penalty against the Lightning results in a goal 41.7 per cent of the time, with Kucherov leading the way. Of the team's 15 power-play goals scored this post-season, Kucherov has factored in to 13 of them — four goals and nine assists (six of which have been primary helpers).
How do you solve a player like MacKinnon?
His name is Mark Stone.
The Selke Trophy finalist has been tasked with quieting the NHL's most talented forwards his whole career, and he's been at his best against the Avalanche. Going into the second-round series, MacKinnon had six goals in four games. A two-goal outing in the series opener against Vegas had him on pace for more of the same. But with Stone's 200-foot game and elite defensive performance matched up against Colorado's top line, MacKinnon was held without a goal for the remainder of the series.
In addition to his all-around smart play and sound defensive performance, Stone's big-game offence shone through in Game 5 when he scored less than a minute into overtime to push Colorado to the brink.
Through 13 games, Stone leads all Vegas forwards in ice time (19:49) and has been, well, everywhere.
Including our favourite new GIFs:
Tyler Toffoli has come up clutch with a game- and series-winner against Winnipeg. Philip Danault has made shutting down opponents’ top lines look easy. Cole Caufield is emerging as an assist artist.
The Montreal Canadiens have proven themselves worthy of the Canadian crown with their total team play, but the biggest driving force behind their success is the man in the blue paint – the King in the North himself.
Thanks in large part to Carey Price’s incredible performances, the Canadiens — the last team to clinch a playoff berth and the last to advance to Round 2 — were the first club to move on the Stanley Cup Semifinals where they’ll face the Golden Knights. Price has backstopped Montreal to seven straight wins, including the decisive sweep of the Winnipeg Jets. The Canadiens have not trailed for 437:53 — that’s seven hours, 17 minutes and 53 seconds of hockey, which encompasses that win streak.
That incredible lead streak is the second-longest such stretch in NHL playoff history, behind the 1960 Canadiens — they didn’t trail in all eight of their post-season games that year en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
Price’s signature poise under pressure saw him win three straight elimination games against Toronto, letting just six goals past him in that time to claim the first-round series in seven games. In four games against Winnipeg, he let only six pucks past him on a combined 103 shots faced.
Like the other three Stanley Cup Semifinal teams, the New York Islanders have had excellent goaltending. But between rookie Ilya Sorokin backstopping the club through Round 1 and veteran Semyon Varlamov shining in Round 2, neither netminder has quite put up enough games to warrant a spot here on this list just yet.
The Conn Smythe has never been co-won before, but if there ever were to be a first, it feels like that honour would go to the Islanders. The club's tandem approach to goalie wins is kind of symbolic of their team approach to wins so far, shutting down opponents with their cohesive, complete game plan and scoring by committee in the long-term absence of captain Anders Lee.
That Islanders-way of playing – gritty, back-checking, smart-playmaking, defensively responsible – is perhaps best exemplified by Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
Not only has he been the team’s most reliable face-off man (54 per cent; and even better in his own zone, at 56.7 per cent), he’s also been their most productive skater on the scoresheet, with a team-leading 10 assists and 13 points. His ability to always make the responsible play regardless of where he is on the ice makes him invaluable to this organization, and his creative playmaking has made him really fun to watch.
Pageau's biggest beneficiary? Kyle Palmieri. The two have struck excellent chemistry, which really heated up in Round 2. Pageau has assisted on four of Palmieri's team-high seven goals this post-season, including three primary assists to set up the club's most successful deadline acquisition.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights
Bested by the powerful Colorado Avalanche just once, the steady play of Marc-Andre Fleury behind the deep Vegas Golden Knights squad was one of the biggest reasons Vegas was able to recover from a 2-0 series deficit to claim second-round victory in six games (Robin Lehner got the Game 1 start against Colorado.)
In those four consecutive wins, Fleury faced 101 shots and limited Colorado to just eight goals.
That solid Round 2 presence was just more of the same for Fleury, really. The no-brainer Vezina finalist was excellent against Minnesota in Round 1 and was a strong last line of defence against the Avalanche's best attempts. In 12 playoff games so far, Fleury has never let in more than three goals in a single game, his 1.91 goals-against average the lowest among all remaining net minders.
Right behind him is Price, at 1.97 – we're in for an elite goalie showdown with a ticket to the Cup Final on the line.