After six months of only divisional and country-exclusive play, four teams are left standing with a chance to win the Stanley Cup. There are clear favorites in each semifinal: Vegas and Tampa Bay expect to move on and meet each other with a championship on the line. Don’t discount dark-horse Montreal (winners of seven straight games) or the plucky New York Islanders. Making it to the final four during a season held in the midst of a global pandemic is an impressive accomplishment in and of itself. Both squads are hoping to go even farther.
These four teams have lived in their own divisional worlds for the past half-year. Now they face the challenge of an unknown opponent. Overcoming that challenge means a berth in the finals, and a shot to win hockey’s ultimate crown.
Stanley Cup Semifinal Predictions
Vegas Golden Knights (West Division Champion) vs. Montreal Canadiens (North Division Champion)
After surviving seven games against nemesis Minnesota, Vegas recovered from a dreadful Game 1 against Colorado to dismantle the Presidents Trophy winning Avalanche in six games. The Golden Knights exposed Colorado’s weaknesses of forward and defensive depth, and slowed down the Avs’ stars enough to take the series. Vegas has four lines and six defensemen firing on all cylinders, playing a relentless style that never takes a shift off. The Golden Knights’ best players – forwards Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault (team-leading six playoff goals), Alex Tuch, and William Karlsson (team-leading 11 playoff points) – are finding opportunities because there are just too many of them to slow down. Meanwhile, off-season acquisition Alex Pietrangelo (team-leading seven assists) is coming into own as the dominant leader Vegas was looking for when they signed him. Veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (8-4-0, 1.91 goals-against average, .923 save percentage) is playing arguably the best hockey of his career. He is the current favorite to win the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player of the 2021 playoffs.
Montreal stumbled into the postseason, looking hopeless while falling down 3-games-to-1 in their first-round series against Toronto. However, since that point the Canadiens flipped a switch. Sparked by Nick Suzuki’s gorgeous overtime winner in Game 5, Montreal found a winning formula for the playoffs. First, get outstanding play from superstar goaltender Carey Price (8-3-0, 1.97 GAA, .935 SP). Second, rely on a solid core of veteran forwards more attuned to hockey in playoffs than the regular season. Third, get enough offense from those veterans, and their young emerging scorers, to win tight games. Montreal has done all of that, and it resulted in a seven-game winning streak. If the Canadiens are to continue with their winning formula, they need offense from Suzuki, Tyler Toffoli (team-leading 10 playoff points), and Cole Caufield, leadership from Eric Staal (team-leading six playoff assists), Joel Armia, and Corey Perry. They also their outstanding group of top-four defenders – Shea Weber, Joel Edmundson, Jeff Petry, and Ben Chiarot – to continue to make life miserable for their opponents.
It has been a fairytale run so far for the Canadiens, but reality will likely hit in a series against Vegas. The Golden Knights can expose weaknesses that neither Toronto or Winnipeg could. Vegas will send a relentless attack in on Price, and eventually the Canadiens’ dam will burst. I think games will be closer than many expect in this series, but I see Vegas rolling in five games over Montreal.
Tampa Bay Lightning (Central Division Champion) vs. New York Islanders (East Division Champion)
It has been stunning to see Tampa Bay methodically march to the Stanley Cup semifinals after winning a title last summer. The Lightning’s road to the semifinals was hardly easy, playing two excellent teams in Florida and Carolina in the first two rounds. However, the defending champions made both squads look like they belong in the American Hockey League. Tampa Bay, led by superstar goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (8-3-0, 2.24 GAA and .934 SP), is playing even better than last year. That spells trouble for the Islanders. One big reason for Tampa’s success is sniper Nikita Kucherov. After missing the entire regular season, Kucherov leads the playoffs with 18 points, while fellow forward Brayden Point has eight goals to lead all players still competing. It’s fun to see healthy captain Steven Stamkos leading the change, and defenseman Victor Hedman playing as well as anyone in the league. How Hedman, Vasilevskiy and company completely shut down Carolina’s offense was unexpected and unbelievably impressive. It just proves that Tampa Bay can win games in many different ways.
The Lightning will have their hands full trying to shut down the New York Islanders, who shocked both Pittsburgh and Boston en route to their second straight berth in the Stanley Cup semifinals. Despite a lack of star forwards, New York leads the NHL in goals scored in the postseason. As always, it is a committee approach for the Islanders. New York is led by top talent Matthew Barzal, who heated up late in the series against the Bruins. Midseason pickup Kyle Palmieri also got red-hot in that series, and now has seven goals in the playoffs to lead all Islanders. J.G. Pageau (team-leading 13 points), Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey, and Brock Nelson are all playing well up front. On defense the Islanders don’t allow much, as Adam Pelech, Nick Leddy, Scott Mayfield and Ryan Pulock log heavy minutes. The Islanders continue to have two good options in goal; both Semyon Varlamov (4-3-0) and Ilya Sorokin (4-1-0) may be needed against the Lightning. New York doesn’t play the prettiest brand of hockey, and they are prone to long stretches without the puck. However, the Islanders capitalize on mistakes and allow few quality scoring chances. That is always a formula for success.
Tampa Bay vs. New York provides rematch of the Eastern Conference finals in the bubble last season, this time in front of fans. I expect the result to be similar, with the Lightning having too much talent in all the right places. However, pick against the Islanders at your old peril, as they always seem to prove everyone wrong. I like Tampa Bay to knock out New York in six games, but this series could go either way.
Quick Stanley Cup Finals Prediction
Tampa Bay vs. Vegas
This would be a terrific final matchup, with two juggernaut teams facing off with a title on the line. I like Vegas’ depth to overcome the Lightning. The Golden Knights will score just enough on Vasilevskiy to give the Vegas its first Stanley Cup, preventing a repeat crown for Tampa Bay in the process.