The Final Four features the two favorites on each side of the ledger, Tampa Bay and Vegas, facing off against a pair of capable upstarts who are playing terrific hockey in the New York Islanders and the Dallas Stars.
The bubble shrinks to just one site for the Conference Finals, as Tampa Bay and New York will join the Western Conference teams in Edmonton, Alberta. Both series should be extremely tight with little separating the four remaining teams fighting for the Stanley Cup. The result should be some electric games and a pair of close series.
Eastern Conference Final
No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning
vs. No. 6 New York Islanders
Game 1: Monday, Sept. 7, 8 p.m. ET
Game 2: Wednesday, Sept. 9, 8 p.m. ET
Game 3: Friday, Sept. 11, 8 p.m. ET
Game 4: Sunday, Sept. 13, 3 p.m. ET
*Game 5: Tuesday, Sept. 15, 8 p.m. ET
*Game 6: Thursday, Sept. 17, 8 p.m. ET
*Game 7: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET
After needing five games to dispense Boston, the Presidents’ Trophy winner and an Atlantic Division rival, Tampa Bay will be by far the most rested of the NHL’s final four squads. The Lightning featured the NHL’s most talented team for years. They modified their style of play and roster so they could be able to beat two of the league’s toughest squads, Boston and Columbus, en route to the Conference Finals. Each of these series lasted just five games, but nine of them were tight. In fact, Tampa Bay boasts a 4-0 record in overtime games this postseason, and the battled-tested Lightning proved they could win ugly.
Coach Jon Cooper’s squad can still score early and often, with scorers like Brayden Point (team-leading six goals and 18 points), Nikita Kucherov (team-leading 12 assists) and Ondrej Palat leading the way. The difference is that Tampa Bay can now take opposing teams’ physical play and distribute it back, especially via their dynamic third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.
The 2019-20 Lightning feature impressive depth on their blue line. Superstar Victor Hedman leads the way from the back end, logging an average of 26 minutes per game of ice time in the postseason. There isn’t much of drop off behind him thanks to the likes of Kevin Shattenkirk, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Ryan McDonagh, and the surprising Zach Bogosian.
While Tampa Bay is strong on offense and defense, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (the 2019 Vezina Trophy Winner), is arguably the playoffs’ best netminder. All the 26-year-old has done so far in the postseason is post a 10-3-0 record, with 1.91 goals against average (GAA) and .931 save percentage (SP).
Tampa Bay’s opponent is the only remaining team from the Qualification Round: the red-hot New York Islanders. The Islanders dominated their seven-game series with Philadelphia, completely shutting down the Flyers’ best offensive weapons. Each game featured a heavy shot deficit for Philadelphia. New York pepped Flyers goaltender Carter Hart. Philadelphia survived until Game 7 thanks to great goaltending and overtime heroics, but no team is playing better at this moment than New York. That was clear in the each of the games of the series where the Islanders fell behind, as each time New York managed to comeback and force overtime.
The Islanders’ surprising offense is a big reason why they are the hottest team in the playoffs. New York is getting all kinds of goals from star Mathew Barzal (13 points), young sniper Anthony Beauvillier (team-leading eight goals), Josh Bailey (team-leading 17 points), Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle, trade-deadline acquisition Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and captain Anders Lee (seven points, all goals). New York is relentless on the forecheck, on the back check and nearly always prevents opponents from getting to the middle of the ice. It is a style of play that absolutely frustrates the competition, as Washington and Philadelphia can attest.
The Islanders don’t feature headliners on defense like Tampa Bay, but Ryan Pulock is the best blueliner you might not know. He’s joined by terrific two-way defenders Devon Toews and Nick Leddy, while Scott Mayfield and veteran Andy Greene are both playing great.
In goal, coach Barry Trotz has two solid options—starter Semyon Varlamov (9-4-0, 2.00 GAA and .921 SP) and Thomas Greiss. Now with his third team, Varlamov has settled into a comfortable starting role. But if he falters, Game 7 hero Greiss is more than capable of taking over the net.
For a third straight round, the Lightning must play a team that would have caused them loads of trouble in previous years. However, the Lightning are one of few squads with enough talent to put the Islanders on their heels and force them to chase the game. This will be a series of adjustments, line juggling and playing the matchups. I like Tampa Bay’s edge in depth and I think they can handle the Islanders’ relentless forecheck. For those reasons, I like the Lightning to advance in six games.
Western Conference Final
No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights
vs. No. 3 Dallas Stars
Game 1: Sunday, Sept. 6, 8 p.m. ET
Game 2: Tuesday, Sept. 8, 8 p.m. ET
Game 3: Thursday, Sept. 10, 8 p.m. ET
Game 4: Saturday, Sept. 12, 8 p.m. ET
*Game 5: Monday, Sept. 14, 8 p.m. ET
*Game 6: Wednesday, Sept. 16, 8 p.m.
*Game 7: Friday, Sept. 18, 9 p.m. ET
It took Vegas all seven games to dispose of the plucky young Vancouver Canucks, and it might have been the best thing that could have happened to the Golden Knights. Facing an unbelievable goaltender, Thatcher Demko, who completely stoned everything Vegas threw at him, Vegas wilted in Game 6. But coach Pete DeBoer’s club did not panic. In third period of Game 7, the Demko Dam finally broke. The Golden Knights found another level.
Talent-wise, Vegas rolled over Chicago and Vancouver, sending four-line waves of attackers that overwhelmed the younger squads. The Golden Knights’ game plan for a series against Dallas will be similar. Vegas is a team that likes to dictate the pace, the physicality, and just about everything else in a game. The Golden Knights force you to react to them, and if an opponent gets stuck reacting, the game is usually over.
How does Vegas do it? The Golden Knights roll out endless layers of talented forwards like Mark Stone (15 points), Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson. Talented veterans like Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny fit right in on Vegas’ attack. As good as those players are, the Golden Knights features a weapon almost no other team can stop in Alex Tuch. The fast and bruising Vegas forward leads all Golden Knights with eight goals, the same amount he scored during the abbreviated regular season.
As dominant as Tuch has been, defenseman Shea Theodore has been even better. The 25-year-old leads all Golden Knights with 16 points and is logging over 22 minutes of ice time with the puck rarely in his zone. Defensive depth used to be a weakness for Vegas, but the acquisition of Alec Martinez really shored up a group that includes Nate Schmidt and the surprising Zach Whitecloud.
In goal, Vegas continues to go with trade deadline acquisition Robin Lehner (8-4-0, 1.99 GAA and .918 SP), who is playing well despite not seeing many shots. There have been a few clunkers along the way during the playoffs for Lehner, but his overall track record should offset any concerns DeBoer might have. Spelling Lehner is veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, who is just two years removed from carrying Vegas all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
No team endured more highs and lows during the Conference Semifinals than Dallas. Facing an undermanned Colorado squad, Dallas played its best hockey of the year to jump out to a 3-1 series lead over the favored Avalanche. The Stars took their foot off the gas in Game 5, yielding catastrophic results. If it was not for the unlikeliest of heroics from Game 7 hero Joel Kiviranta, who scored his first three playoff goals in the deciding contest (which included the game-tying goal late and the game-winner in overtime) the Stars’ bubble would have burst.
Kiviranta’s performance overshadowed the offensive renaissance the Stars have enjoyed throughout the playoffs. Coach Rick Bowness’ stellar top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov has yet to reach its highest potential, but Dallas is getting all sorts of offense from its other forwards, including eight goals each from Denis Gurianov and Joe Pavelski.
Standout defenseman Miro Heiskanen (active playoff leader with 21 points) has taken over many playoff games. He’s joined on Dallas’ stout blue line by fellow defenders John Klingberg (12 points) and Esa Lindell, who have each been terrific while logging heavy minutes.
In goal, the unheralded Anton Khodobin (8-5-0, 2.94 GAA and .909 SP) continues to shoulder the load and perform admirably between the pipes. His stat lines are not the prettiest, but playing seven games against Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon tends to result in that. I did not think Dallas could win wide-open, run-and-gun-type games against Colorado, but the Stars and Khudobin were able to withstand the Avalanche’s best efforts.
Vegas will be favored in this a series pitting two deep offensive squads. The big factor for the Stars will be Khudobin or goaltender Ben Bishop. There will be times when Dallas will just need to weather the storm of Vegas’ relentless forecheck, and if the Stars’ goalies are not up to the challenge, this will be a short series. However, Dallas has surprised so far and showed glimpses of its potential against the Avalanche. They are a far deeper squad than Vancouver, but I see Vegas’ attack being too much for the Stars, and therefore the Golden Knights will advance in six games.
Stanley Cup Finals Preview
Tampa Bay vs. Vegas
Each conference’s best team top-to-bottom, Vegas and Tampa Bay should produce a terrific cap to unprecedented 2020 NHL Season. Both the Lightning and the Golden Knights would be more than capable of winning this series, but I like Tampa Bay in this potential matchup. There are few teams in the NHL that can keep up with Vegas’ pace of play, but Tampa Bay will be more than willing to match speed with speed. With slightly more talent in each facet of the game, I will pick the Lightning as my 2020 Stanley Cup champion, winning their second Stanley Cup in seven games.