Photo via nhl.com
The final four is now set in stone.
While the Tampa Bay Lightning took care of business in five games against the Boston Bruins, the Dallas Stars, Vegas Golden Knights and New York Islanders were all forced to seven games against the Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively.
With the Stars slated to face the Golden Knights and the Islanders slated to face Tampa Bay, it is time for another preview and prediction breakdown for each matchup.
Western Conference Final:
(1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (3) Dallas Stars
Despite outscoring the Canucks 19-14 in the series, the Golden Knights were forced to seven games due in large part to Vancouver goaltender Thatcher Demko, who allowed two goals combined in three starts against Vegas. The Golden Knights, meanwhile, leaned on their own goaltender in Robin Lehner to get the job done, as the 29-year-old started six of seven games against Vancouver and picked up three shutouts. On the other side of the bout, the Dallas Stars utilized scorching speed, constant checking and bend-but-not-break goaltending to overwhelm the youthful and star-studded Colorado Avalanche.
While the puck movement of Vegas is almost unrivaled when compared to the rest of the NHL (let alone the remaining teams in the postseason), they will have to contend with the Stars’ forechecking, backchecking and blocking game, which averaged 48 hits and 21 blocks a game against the Avalanche. When combined with goaltender Anton Khudobin and the likes of Miro Heiskanen, Denis Gurianov and Joe Pavelski, the Stars will be just a bit more physical to overtake Vegas. It is a tough choice, but Dallas fooled me already. It will not happen again.
Eastern Conference Final:
(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (6) New York Islanders
The Lightning were able to put down the Bruins in five games despite Steven Stamkos not playing a single shift. Ondrej Palat was the bane of Boston’s existence, as the 29-year-old scored five total goals during the series. It would be Victor Hedman who would be the hero in Game 5, however, as the defenseman would wrist a shot through Brandon Carlo’s legs and into the near post of Jaroslav Halak’s net in the second overtime of the game to clinch the series. The Islanders, meanwhile, kept the Flyers’ offense out of rhythm and punctured the net defended by Carter Hart just enough to eliminate Philadelphia in Game 7.
The Islanders strike a resemblance to the Stars, as they too emphasize big-time checking and blocking. Credit should be given to Tampa Bay, as they too have made it a priority to get more physical on the defending side of the ice, but even still, the Islanders are in a class of their own when it comes to defending their own zone and net. While Tampa Bay still possesses offense even if they are without Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov (the latter did not play the final half of Game 5), everyone saw how the Islanders shut down Philadelphia’s offense. Look for New York to continue their technical blocking game on a Lightning offense not at full strength. Make no mistake – Tampa Bay will score some goals, as the Islanders might have a hint of a goaltender conundrum after Semyon Varlamov was pulled for Thomas Greiss in preparation for Game 7 against Philadelphia. No matter the goaltender New York will go with, the Islanders will utilize their stingy defense similarly to how the St. Louis Blues used theirs during their Stanley Cup campaign last season. The end result will see New York make the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 1983-84 season.
Prediction: New York