2020 NHL Conference Semifinal Previews

The last three weeks have truly been the National Hockey League’s version of March Madness. (August Awesomeness?) The Cinderellas, Chicago and Montreal, enjoyed their moment in the sun before the clock struck midnight on the league’s pretenders.

Now that first few weeks have passed, the truly elite teams, especially Boston, Tampa Bay, Colorado and Vegas, rose to the top, while the 12 seeds and other upset-minded squads fell by the wayside. It also became clear which teams want to be in the bubble, stay together and compete for a title, and which were ready to go home and see their families.

2020 Stanley Cup playoffs

This leaves eight excellent teams on each side of the ledger. Two, the Golden Knights and Avalanche, truly stand in front of the pack in the Western Conference. The result: every series from here on out will be ultra-competitive and terrific to watch. Very little separates the NHL’s elite eight. Here’s my preview of the NHL Conference Semifinals.

Eastern Conference Semifinals

Scotiabank Arena – Toronto

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 6 New York Islanders

Game 1: Monday, Aug. 24, 7 p.m. ET
Game 2: Wednesday Aug. 26, 3 p.m. ET
Game 3: Thursday, Aug. 27, 7 p.m. ET
Game 4: Saturday, Aug. 29, 12 p.m. ET
*Game 5: Monday, Aug. 31 – TBD
*Game 6: Wednesday, Sept. 2 – TBD
*Game 7: Thursday, Sept. 3 – TBD

Riding red-hot goaltender Carter Hart (6-2-0, 1.71 goals against average, .943 save percentage), Philadelphia cruised to a six-game series victory over Montreal in a physical, chippy, and contentious series. For a Flyers team that had not won a playoff series since 2012, this was a big moment for the up-and-coming franchise. Hart was dominant, posting back-to-back shutouts mid-series.

His impressive performances, combined with the Flyers blue line that is allowing few offensive chances against, helped cover for a Philadelphia offense that has yet to hit its stride since the NHL’s return to play. Jacob Voracek is leading the way with four goals and eight points. The Flyers’ best offensive player right now is Kevin Hayes.

The Islanders played nearly perfect hockey for all but two periods against a Washington team that never really found its game in the bubble. With tight checking, especially in the neutral zone, the Islanders absolutely smothered the vaunted Capitals offense. It was a full team effort, led by top forward Mathew Barzal (team-leading seven points), who was strong at both ends of the ice. Barzal headed a surprisingly deep offensive effort, which continues to feature breakout star Anthony Beauvillier (team-leading four goals, seven points). Meanwhile in goal, Semyon Varlamov (6-2-0, 1.87, .927), continued his strong play as the latest Barry Trotz/Mitch Korn reclamation project.

This should be a tight series between two of the NHL’s better defensive teams. Neither New York or Philadelphia allow many offensive opportunities against, meaning goals will be hard to come by all series long. The Flyers might have a slight edge with Hart in goal, but the Islanders have their entire team rolling offensively and defensively. I think that will continue here. I see New York pulling a mild upset in this series, winning it in six games.

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 4 Boston Bruins

Game 1: Sunday, Aug. 23, 8 p.m. ET
Game 2: Tuesday, Aug. 25, 7 p.m. ET
Game 3: Wednesday, Aug. 26, 8 p.m. ET
Game 4: Friday, Aug. 28, 7:30 p.m. ET
*Game 5: Sunday, Aug. 30 – TBD
*Game 6: Tuesday, Sept. 1 – TBD
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 2 – TBD

The Bruins are coming off a dominant series victory against everyone’s favorite playoff dark horse, Carolina. The decisiveness of Boston’s five-game win was quite remarkable considering how awful it looked in the round robin tournament, and the fact that top goaltender Tuukka Rask opted out mid-series. Yet, Rask’s departure seemed to galvanize the Bruins, who rallied behind the play of their unusually strong second line of David Krejci (team-leading nine points), Jake DeBrusk and Ondrej Kase. This trio really
stepped up with David Pastrnak, the NHL’s leading goal-scorer, out for much of the series. So did veteran goaltender Jaroslav Halak (3-1-0, 2.29 GAA, .912 SP). The 35-year-old, who serves as kind of a 1B option for coach Bruce Cassidy’s squad, starred as Boston won the last three games of the series. With Pastrnak having time to get even more healthy, the mighty Bruins might be getting back to the type of play that helped them win the Presidents’ Trophy.

No squad had a more emotional series victory in the Conference quarterfinals than the Lightning, who got a massive playoff monkey off their back by knocking out nemesis Columbus in five games. Though the Jackets were eliminated in five games, the series was far from short. The Lightning won one of the NHL’s all-time epic games to open the series, after Brayden Point (team-leading five goals and 10 points) scored in the fifth overtime, then pulled off a stunning third-period and overtime comeback
in the clinching Game 5. As good as Point was in the series, the big difference (other than Columbus just running out of gas) was the play of their new energy line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay
Goodrow. While Columbus’ top defensive pair, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, dealt with Point and Nikita Kucherov, the gritty forwards keep the puck in Columbus’ end for endless stretches. In goal, Andrei Vasilevskiy was hardly perfect, but he was far better than he was one year ago. It certainly did not hurt that all-world defenseman Victor Hedman was terrific in front of him.

The East’s top two regular-season teams, the Bruins and Lightning, will face each other in the Conference Semifinals ― a byproduct of the Bruins’ bumbling round-round play. Maybe it’s fitting that each East matchup pairs two divisional opponents; still, a true contender will be booted from this series by the end. For both teams, the key will be to get out in front early. Winning multiple must-win games against the other will be difficult. If Halak can continue his great play, Boston has a shot. Overall I think Tampa has a slight edge here, and that might make the difference in a very tight series. I’ll pick the Lightning in seven games.

Western Conference Semifinals

(Rogers Place – Edmonton, Alberta)

No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks

Game 1: Sunday, Aug. 23, 10:30 p.m. ET
Game 2: Tuesday, Aug. 25, 9:45 p.m. ET
Game 3: Thursday, Aug. 27, 9:45 p.m. ET
Game 4: Saturday, Aug. 29, 8 p.m. ET
*Game 5: Monday, Aug. 31 – TBD
*Game 6: Tuesday, Sept. 1 – TBD
*Game 7: Thursday, Sept. 3 – TBD

Though Chicago certainly was not a Stanley Cup contender, just how well Vegas played in its Conference quarterfinals series against the Blackhawks, plus their dominant effort in round-robin play, shows that the Golden Knights are all business in the Edmonton bubble. No team can match Vegas’ top-to-bottom depth offensively, led by two-way forward Mark Stone (team-
leading four goals and eight points). The typically potent trio of Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson (21 points combined) was terrific against the Blackhawks. Perhaps the biggest surprise was emerging defenseman Shea Theodore. One of the only things Vegas has lacked in its brief existence was a number-1 blueliner. Theodore now clearly fits that bill. He’s been terrific in front of either Robin Lehner (5-1-0, 2.44 GAA, .904 SP) or Marc-Andre Fleury, who are both terrific options for underrated coach Pete DeBoer.

Vegas will face the last real dark horse left in the playoffs, Vancouver. The Canucks were very impressive in upsetting the defending champion St. Louis Blues, and have young stars carrying them in the postseason. Budding superstar Elias Pettersson leads the way with 13 points, tied for the most this postseason. Bo Horvat tops the squad with six goals, many of the highlight-reel variety. Super rookie Quinn Hughes quarterbacks a deadly power play, while veteran J.T. Miller has his game in top shape. Jacob Markstrom (7-3-0, 2.44 GAA, .929 SP) continues to emerge as one of the NHL’s better goalies, and he played very well against the Blues. If there is a concern for Vancouver, it’s their already-thin blue line, which is now very banged up. The Canucks’ defense will need all hands on deck to slow down Vegas’ relentless waves of offense.

Vancouver proved it’s ready to hang with the Western Conference’s best teams, and now will get another chance against stout Vegas. However, even when healthy I do not think the Canucks have enough defensive talent to slow down the Golden Knights. Right now they’re far below peak health. I’ll take Vegas to win this series in six games.

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 3 Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Aug. 22, 8 p.m. ET
Game 2: Monday, Aug. 24, 9:45 p.m. ET
Game 3: Wednesday, Aug. 26, 10:30 p.m. ET
Game 4: Friday, Aug. 28, 10 p.m. ET
*Game 5: Sunday, Aug. 30 – TBD
*Game 6: Monday, Aug. 31 – TBD
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 2 – TBD

No team was more in control in the Conference Quarterfinals than Colorado, which struggled to crack the dam that was Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper for three games. The Avalanche kept sending waves and waves of offense at the Coyotes’ netminder until the floodgates opened in a pair of 7-1 wins to close out the series. Of all of the teams remaining, only Tampa Bay might be able to match Colorado’s high-end skill, led by the NHL’s current best player, Nathan MacKinnon (NHL-leading 13 points). What makes the Avalanche so dangerous is their off-season addition of Nazem Kadri, who is a perfect fit in Colorado — as his team-leading six goals in the NHL’s Return to Play attests. Defenseman Cale Makar continues to show that he’s well on his way to becoming an elite defenseman, while both Phillip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz are terrific options for coach Jared Bednar in goal. High-
flying Colorado is as good as any team remaining in the playoffs.

The juggernaut Avalanche will now clash with the Dallas Stars—one of the NHL’s best defensive teams. The Stars’ stout blue line features two of the NHL’s best, Miro Heiskanen (team-leading 12 points) and John Klingberg, and at least one of the two will likely be tasked with slowing down MacKinnon. In recent years, Dallas has really struggled with finding secondary scoring, but the combination of Joe Pavelski and Denis Gurianov (both team-leading six goals each) are really rolling. With the Stars’ stars, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, both off to a slow start, Pavelski and Gurianov were a big reason why Dallas knocked off Calgary. Filling in for the injured Ben Bishop, backup Anton Khudobin (4-3-0, 2.49 GAA and .919 SP) played well. He’ll need to be at his best, and even that (as Kuemper found out in the Conference Quarterfinals), might not be good enough to slow down Colorado.

Dallas will do everything it can to try to stymie Colorado and play this series at a slower pace. However, if this series becomes a track meet, as the Avalanche prefer, the Stars will be dead in the water. I expect Colorado to be able to dictate the pace, and win this series in six games.

A Quick Look at the Rest of the Playoffs

Conference Finals
East: 2. Tampa Bay over 6. New York Islanders
West: 2. Colorado over 1. Vegas

Stanley Cup Finals

2. Tampa Bay over 2. Colorado

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