It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Typically that’s a phrase one would hear around Christmas. But for hockey fans, there’s no better time of year to enjoy the game than the playoffs. With storylines galore and the intensity at an all-time high, witnessing 16 teams battle for the right to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup is a sight to behold.
Throughout the postseason, From The 300 Level will provide you with series previews and predictions from the start of round one through the finals. Previews will become more in-depth as the playoffs roll along, but for now here is our analysis of the conference finals.
(2) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (6) New York Islanders
A powerhouse in the Eastern Conference over the last half-decade, the Lightning are deeper than they’ve ever been. Youngsters like Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli and imports like Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman and Ryan McDonagh have joined Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Victor Hedman to build a juggernaut. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s best goaltender. Despite having to work through some adversity this postseason in the form of an injury to Stamkos, Tampa Bay has downed both the Columbus Blue Jackets – who upset them in last year’s playoffs – and the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins in five games each.
After John Tavares’ defection to Toronto two years ago, most believed the New York Islanders would suffer a major downturn. Not so. Talents like Matthew Barzal, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier and Brock Nelson have turned in solid efforts and are supplemented by strong defensive talents in Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield and Nick Leddy. Veterans like Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Derick Brassard and Andy Greene were brought in by GM Lou Lamoriello to help out Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck play in Barry Trotz’s smothering defensive system, and Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss have split the starting goaltender duties. To get here, the Islanders have gotten past the Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers.
PREDICTION – Lightning in seven. As effective as the Islanders’ defensive system is – and it will give Tampa fits – it won’t be enough to match the Bolts’ depth, and the Lightning also have the edge in goal.
(1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (3) Dallas Stars
The Golden Knights followed up their first two seasons with another strong outing and are clearly one of the better outfits in the Western Conference. Led by William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, the Golden Knights have augmented their core group with experienced pros like Mark Stone, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty and are a team that relies on speed and a strong forechecking game. Pete DeBoer replaced Gerard Gallant behind the bench and has kept this team on course, while trade deadline pickups Robin Lehner and Alec Martinez have lightened the loads of headliners Marc-Andre Fleury and Shea Theodore. Vegas knocked out the Chicago Blackhawks in five games and the Vancouver Canucks in seven on their way to the Conference Final.
The Dallas Stars are an interesting outfit. Goaltenders Anton Khubodin has performed well while regular starter Ben Bishop has nursed an injury, as have defensemen Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg, but the rest of the team was inconsistent – leading to a coaching change midseason in favor of longtime assistant Rick Bowness. The Stars’ big guns – Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov – all saw their statistical outputs drop off, and free agent signings Joe Pavelski, Corey Perry and Andrej Sekera didn’t provide much of a shot in the arm. However, role players like Denis Gurianov, Radek Faksa and Jamie Oleksiak have stepped their play up. The Stars were so-so during the qualifying round and against the Calgary Flames, but edged out the Colorado Avalanche in seven games. All of which leads to the question – which version of this Jekyll and Hyde team will we see against Vegas?
PREDICTION – Vegas in six. The Stars will give Vegas a run for their money, but their inconsistency will rear its ugly head a few too many times. The Golden Knights are the better team.