The NHL’s final four is set, and the cream has risen to the top. In the East, two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay absolutely dominated sunshine rival Florida, the NHL’s best team during the regular season, allowing just three goals in a four-game sweep. In the West, Colorado continued scoring at a torrid pace, while withstanding everything an underrated St. Louis team threw at them.
The Lightning and Avalanche are the clear favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. One last hurdle remains before they play for the Cup. The New York Rangers are the most surprising of the teams still alive, having survived five different elimination games against Pittsburgh and Carolina. Edmonton survived the battle of Alberta, winning one of the greatest five-game series in NHL history against Calgary. Expect both of these teams to put up a fight in the conference finals.
Eastern Conference Final
New York Rangers (Metropolitan Division Champions, defeated Pittsburgh and Carolina) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (Atlantic Division Champions, defeated Toronto and Florida)
While the Rangers finished as the second-best team in the Metropolitan Division, there is a bit of Cinderella feeling to New York’s playoff run. Part of that comes from the lack of experience on the Rangers’ roster; you can see them getting better with every game. The Rangers don’t feature a whole lot of players that scare you offensively, but Mika Zibanejad (team-leading 19 points) is playing like a man possessed, while Adam Fox (team-leading 13 assists) refuses to let New York lose any elimination games. Thanks to forwards like Andrew Copp and Chris Kreider (team-leading eight goals), the Rangers are getting steady offensive contributions. However, the reason why New York is coming on in the playoffs has to do with their superior defense and goaltending. After a slow start, likely Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin (8-5-0, 2.68 GAA, .928 SP) is making all the saves he needs to. Fox, K’Andre Miller, Jacob Trouba, and Ryan Lindgren have all been terrific. That core four is making life easy on the Rangers’ Russian netminder.
While there might have been some question marks about Tampa Bay’s motivation going into the playoffs, the Lightning cemented their status as the clear favorite in the East after crushing the Panthers. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (8-3-0, 2.23 GAA, .932 SP) was absolutely locked in against Florida, and that doesn’t bode well for any future Tampa opponent. The same can be said for star forward Nikita Kucherov (team-leading 15 points) and defenseman Victor Hedman (10 points). While Tampa Bay has yet to unleash its best offensive performance in these playoffs, the fact that Ross Colton and Corey Perry are the team’s leading goal-scorers (five each), shows that concerns about the Lightning’s offensive depth have been overstated. Tampa Bay’s third straight championship ring is well within reach.
I see New York’s magical run coming to an abrupt end against Tampa Bay. The Lightning are rested and rejuvenated, and that won’t bode well for the Rangers. I expect Tampa Bay to knock out New York in five games.
Western Conference Final
1. Colorado Avalanche (Central Division Champions, defeated Nashville and St. Louis) vs. Edmonton (Pacific Division Champions, defeated Los Angeles and Calgary)
Colorado coasted in the opening round against a banged-up Nashville team, but got tested in the second round by the 2019 champions, the St. Louis Blues. While the Blues could not keep pace with the speedy Avalanche, St. Louis played a punishing, physical brand of hockey and refused to quit — even after losing goalie Jordan Binnington to injury. In past years the Avalanche folded when facing adversity in the playoffs, but not this year. Their star forwards are all coming to the forefront, including Nathan MacKinnon (team-leading eight goals), Mikko Rantanen (team-leading 10 assists), Gabriel Landeskog and the feisty Nazem Kadri. On defense, Colorado looks deeper than ever, as Cale Makar (team-leading 13 points) and Devon Toews are playing stellar two-way games, while Bowen Byram, Erik Johnson, and Josh Manson have all been terrific in supporting roles. Goaltender Darcy Kuemper (6-2-0, 2.44 GAA, .904 SP) struggled a bit against a St. Louis team that packs all sorts of offensive punch, but played well enough to win. Coming off an injury in the previous series, that was all the Avalanche were looking for in round two. Edmonton presents Kuemper with a far greater challenge.
While Tampa Bay stunned the hockey world by decimating top-seeded Florida in the second round, Edmonton finally arrived against its archrival, Calgary. Stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have been unstoppable. Each has piled up a stunning 26 points so far in the playoffs. The pair has instant chemistry with Evander Kane, who leads all players in the playoffs with 12 goals. As great as McDavid and Draisaitl have been over the years, both have found another level this year, and it’s helping to carry the rest of the Oilers. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Edmonton’s defense, rarely a strength in previous years, is playing well. Especially notable is the pairing of veteran Duncan Keith and youngster Evan Bouchard. In goal, 40-year-old Mike Smith (8-3-0, 2.70 GAA, .927 GAA) continues to amaze. While Smith can be maddeningly inconsistent, he can also make big saves at key times.
This should be an electric series, as Edmonton and Colorado both love to play up-tempo hockey. The Oilers have answered a lot of questions so far, but the Avalanche are a much tougher opponent than either Los Angeles or Calgary. I like Colorado to survive in six high-scoring games against Edmonton, but for the Oilers to make this a much closer series than anticipated.
Stanley Cup Finals Prediction
Colorado defeats Tampa Bay in seven games.