As the season came to a screeching, unexpected halt in March due to the outbreak of COVID-19, loyal National Hockey League fans wondered what would happen next. After an action-packed season filled with highlight reel goals and show-stopping saves, the league was put on pause. After a few months of sorting out the COVID-19 situation, the NHL returned with a modified playoff format, featuring a newly created play-in round which would lead up to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Teams battled their way through the first two rounds, but only four teams have proved themselves worthy of taking on their respective conference’s semifinal round.
The only four teams left in the running for the Stanley Cup are the Vegas Golden Knights and the Dallas Stars from the Western Conference, and the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning from the Eastern Conference. The Golden Knights went 39-24-8 in the regular season, finishing with 86 points and 227 goals. Their competitor, the Dallas Stars, went 37-24-8 with only 82 points, as their season got cut short. The Stars scored 180 times, one of the lowest records in the league. In the east, the Islanders went 35-23-10 with only 80 points and 192 goals, but don’t let that fool you; the Islanders mean business, even if they are the underdog on paper. The final team is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who boasted an impressive 43-21-6 record before the season’s abrupt close, with 92 points total and a whopping 245 goals, making them the highest scoring team in the league this year; this makes them the clear frontrunner.
Making a prediction for this year’s Stanley Cup Final will be extremely hard to do, as every team has its star player, its standout goalie or its spark plug. For the west, I will be predicting the Golden Knights to move onto the finals over the Stars, but not without a serious battle. I think this series will go into seven games, and here’s why: I believe that the goalie situation will propel the Knights forward. This year’s playoffs have highlighted the importance of having a solid goalie between the pipes, and the Golden Knights have the advantage in this field. With backup Robin Lehner posting an incredibly impressive goals against average of 1.99 in the playoffs, per NHL.com, he has carried the Knights on his back. This is compared to starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s GAA of 2.27. This is still very strong, and allows the Golden Knights more depth in net. In the playoffs, Stars starter Ben Bishop has posted a baffling GAA of 5.43. This is extremely alarming news for the Stars, as Bishop letting in almost six goals a game may lead to a lack of confidence or morale. Another reason I am tempted to choose the Knights over the Stars is because of how the Stars’ offense is not producing as well as the Knights’ offense. Their defense has shown that they are extremely powerful, but the Golden Knights offense is simply better; William Karlsson, Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Alex Tuch have all been point production machines. I predict that the Stars’ defense will not be able to backbone the team to four wins, and the Golden Knights will close out this series in seven games.
In the east, I think things will go a bit differently. Although the sixth-seeded Islanders were able to beat two teams ranked higher than them, I do not think that they can replicate this success against the Lightning. The ever-present headline this season has been the wrecking crew that is the Lightning offense. In all three aspects of the game (offense, defense, and goaltending), the Lightning trumps the Islanders. In their forward core, they have their point producers like Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, and some enforcers like Pat Maroon. On defense, they have some of the best defensemen in the league in Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev, and in goal they have Andrei Vasilevskiy, last year’s recipient of the Vezina Trophy. As you would guess, this is the award for best goaltender. It is going to be incredibly difficult for the Islanders to break through this tight-knit Lightning team. Up and down the ice, the Islanders are not nearly strong enough to bring down the Lightning; that is not to say that the Islanders are bad, because they are not. They have seriously strong depth throughout their four forward lines and in their defensive core, but they are not as talented as the Lightning who steamrolled the Atlantic Division’s top seeded Boston Bruins. Another key factor in playoff success is experience, and the Islanders do not have this at all. The Islanders are like strangers to the conference final, having a drought of 26 years without making it to this round. The Lightning have made the playoffs each of the last three years, and made it to the Cup Finals in 2015, making them seasoned to the playoff environment. This is just another reason why I believe they can beat the Islanders, in what I would guess to be just five games.
It will be interesting to see how these conference finals play out, because regardless of the outcome of both matchups, we will have a unique Stanley Cup Final round that should be extremely exciting. Whether it be the Knights taking on the Lightning or the underdog Islanders taking on the Stars, I am excited to watch it play out. The loyal fans of the NHL have been waiting for a long time, and now that sports are back, we can cheer on our favorite teams in a safe manner.