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NHL Playoffs: Conference Finals Preview and Predictions

Earlier this week there were three teams down 3 games to 1, and the second round of the playoffs seemed all but over. Those series then stretched on with the Flyers, the Avalanche, and the Canucks all forcing game 7’s. Despite their perseverance, however, all three teams were eliminated. They joined the Bruins, whose series ended earlier, and the rest of the league at the metaphorical golf course, getting set for a short offseason before the regular season begins again later this fall.

So, naturally, we now turn our attention to the teams that successfully navigated the stormy waters of round 2 and now set their sights on the Stanley Cup Conference Finals. In the Western Conference we have the Vegas Golden Knights facing the Dallas Stars, while in the Eastern Conference the New York Islanders get ready to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Let’s get to it.

Dallas Stars vs Vegas Golden Knights

Dallas had their hands full in round two by needing a back-and-forth game 7, OT victory to seal the deal. In fact, they even needed a hat trick from Joel Kiviranta, the first in a game seven since Gretzky in 1993, to get them into the Conference Finals. The major over-arching theme of the series against Colorado was offense. Dallas scored 20 goals total in their victories with five in each win.

They surrendered 16 goals total in their three losses, and gave up at least three goals in six of their round two games. Their goalies have been getting rained on every night, and Dallas has rested their starter, Anton Khudobin, three times in the playoffs so far, turning to Ben Bishop who has one win and two losses while carrying a hemorrhaging goal against average of 5.43. Khudobin, on the other hand, has a 2.94, which is not perfect but usually is enough to secure the victory for the Stars.

Dallas has been getting major production out of defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who has 21 points and 16 assists so far in this playoffs. The question they have going into the Western Conference Final: will the offense be enough to survive against the Vegas Golden Knights?

Vegas showed their teeth in round two. They proved they can score goals and also illustrated an ability to stop opposing offenses. Three of their wins against Vancouver were shutouts as Robin Lehner has been absolutely stunning in net. The midseason acquisition has eight wins and four losses so far these playoffs, boasting a 1.99 goals against average. When needed, Marc-Andre Fleury has stepped in for three wins with a 2.33 goals against average.

They’re getting offense from multiple lines, with four players who have five or more goals so far, and are getting great production from defenseman Shea Theodore who has ten assists and six goals for 16 points. Their round two series wouldn’t have even stretched for seven games if it wasn’t for heroics from the Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko. The 24 year old Californian goaltender personally willed his team through the last 3 games of the series.

Over games five, six, and seven he faced 125 shots and stopped 123 of them and has a goal against average of 0.64. He had a 48 save shutout in game six. He would’ve led the Canucks to the Conference Finals with 33 saves on 34 shots in game 7, but Vancouver was limited to just 14 shots on goal by the stifling Vegas defense.

The Dallas Stars have shown that they have the ability to outrace teams in high-scoring contests, while Vegas has illustrated their ability to play lock-down defense and frustrate opposing offenses. This will not be a cake walk, but I feel that the Golden Knights have the depth, both on offense and defense, to give the Stars some problems.

If the Golden Knights can limit the production of the Dallas top lines, then they’ll win this series. Dallas will need to show that they have the ability to grind out some low-scoring games if they want to make it to the Stanley Cup final. The goaltending will be the biggest difference maker in this series.

Vegas in 6 games

Tampa Bay Lightning VS New York Islanders

Tampa Bay surrendered game one to the Bruins and then never looked back. They stormed to a five-game series victory, including a thunderous seven goal performance in game three. Against Boston they showed a balance between scoring and grit and seem to finally have the makeup of a team that can really succeed in the playoffs.

Even in such a short series they still had to survive two games that went into overtime. Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov drive their offense, with six goals and 12 assists for 18 points for Point and four goals and 12 assists for 16 points from Kucherov so far. Victor Hedman has played well this postseason and continues to be their most reliable defensemen. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been wonderful so far in net. He has played in all 13 postseason games this season, posting 10 wins and three losses with a goals against average of 1.91.

Before Tampa gets a crack at the Stanley Cup they’ll first have to survive an encounter with a New York Islanders team that has beaten all the odds to get this far in the postseason.

The New York Islanders are in the Conference Finals for the first time since 1993 and their path there has been through the number three seeded Capitals and the number one seeded Flyers. Against Philly, the Islanders found a team that played their same brand of gritty hockey. Almost every game in this series was a nail-biter in one direction or the other.

The Isles have proven that they can hang in the playoffs. They’re getting scoring and production from all over their lineup. Josh Bailey leads with 17 points off of 15 assists. Anthony Beauvillier leads the team with eight goals while Anders Lee has seven. Brock Nelson has seven goals and eight assists for 15 points.

The goaltending has been more than sufficient with Semyon Varlamov posting a 2.00 GAA with nine wins and four losses this postseason. Thomas Greiss has stepped in three times, escorting the team to two wins and one loss with a 1.08 GAA.

Barry Trotz has this team playing very disciplined hockey. They only gave the Flyers 13 powerplay opportunities over the seven-game series and allowed zero powerplay goals. They won game seven off of good defense and by turning mistakes into offensive opportunities going the other way.

The Islanders seem to have the magic this postseason and are looking to surprise the entire league with a run to the cup. However, I do not see them getting past the Tampa Bay Lightning. Normally this gritty style of hockey that the Islanders play, where they outwork opponents and wear them down, would be enough to frustrate the Lightning. This year I think Tampa has the grit to survive such a series.

I also think that the grittiness of the Islanders, and the length of their last series, will start to take its physical toll against Tampa. A team cannot play this physically for this many games, especially overtime games, and maintain their energy.

I think the playoff experience that the Lightning have on their bench will also make a huge difference. They’ve been here before and know the feeling of not quite making it. Can playoff experience counter playoff magic? I think so.

Tampa in 6.

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