Conference Finals

Lightning in 6

The New York Islanders had a great summer revival in the Eastern Conference bubble in Toronto. After struggling before the COVID pause, the Islanders got healthy and have reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 27 years. Season ticket sales are soaring for the Islanders, who will be getting a new arena in just over one year. The excitement of players like Josh Bailey, who has become an expert playmaker with 15 assists, while Anthony Beauvillier has become the finisher with seven goals. The Islanders have also gotten significant efforts from Brock Nelson, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Anders Lee, who each have seven goals in the playoffs. The Islanders quickly dispatched the Panthers and beat the Capitals in five, but had trouble putting away the Flyers as they needed a win in Game 7 after leading 3-1 in the series. The Islanders dominated Game 7 as Thomas Griess, relieving Semyon Varmalov, faced just 16 shots in a 4-0 win. If the Islanders are to have a shot at reaching the Stanley Cup Final, they will need a similar effort.

A year after their stunning first-round sweep, the Tampa Bay Lightning look focused at bringing the Stanley Cup back to Florida’s Gulf Coast. The Lightning had just completed their first season when the Islanders last played in the Conference Finals. They had a rough first decade, but made a run to the Stanley Cup in 2004 as storm clouds of a lost season were on the horizon. This year has had its own storm clouds with the COVID pandemic shutting down the sports world for four months. With the NHL reduced to bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, the Lightning, who had one of the greatest regular seasons before being swept in the first round in 2019, has had a renewed focus since the bubble, as they got revenge against the Blue Jackets, winning in five games, spurred by a historic five-overtime game. After dropping the opener, the Lightning stormed back to eliminate the Bruins in five games.

As the Final Four shifts the Eastern Conference Finals to Edmonton, the Lightning appear poised to strike down any opponent. The Lightning are the superior deeper team, with Brayden Point having a terrific postseason with 18 points highlighted by six goals, including the dramatic game-winner in the five-overtime game that kick-started Tampa’s run. The Islanders have been a nice story as the only team that played in the qualifying round to reach the Final Four. The Lightning have too much firepower, Nikita Kucherov is playing at a high level, they have better defense and goaltending with Andrei Vasilevskiy playing at a Conn Smythe level. Look for Tampa to win the series in six. 

Golden Knights in 5

It should not be this easy for expansion teams, but the Vegas Golden Knights are four wins away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in their three-year existence. While the COVID pandemic has moved the Stanley Cup Playoffs on to neutral ice in the Edmonton bubble, the Golden Knights still have that patently of Vegas whenever they take the ice. The Knight was unbeaten in the round-robin and took down the Blackhawks in five games. They needed seven games to beat the Canucks, but even when they lost Games 5 and 6, they still were the better team as the play of Thatcher Demko in the Vancouver nut was the only thing that prevented the Golden Knights from advancing earlier. Robin Lehner was nearly as strong and had three shutouts in the playoffs, including Game 7, as the Vegas defense smothered the Canucks all night. Meanwhile, Alex Tuch has become quite the sniper for the Golden Knights with eight goals, while Shea Theodore has been the leading scorer with six goals and ten assists.

The Dallas Stars have been the most explosive team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as they have been able to score goals in bunches and overcome significant deficits, especially when they beat the Flames in the first round, winning the clinching Game 6, after falling behind 3-0, with five goals in seven minutes. The Stars showed similar firepower in the second round as they beat the Avalanche in seven. Game 7 was a classic overtime battle as Joel Kiviranta, in just his third postseason game, had a hat trick, capped by the game-winner in overtime. It was the first three playoff goals for the rookie, who joined Wayne Gretzky as the only player in NHL history to have a Game 7 hat trick with an overtime series winner. Kiviranta’s second goal was even more significant as it tied the game late in the third period, just ten seconds after Colorado took a 4-3 lead. The Stars firepower is demonstrated as five players have at least five goals, led by Dennis Gurianov and Joe Pavelski, who have eight goals apiece. Miro Heiskanen leads all scorers with 21 points, highlighted by 16 assists. 

Where the Stars offense has been superior, their defense and goaltending have been suspect. Dallas has a 3.50 GAA in the playoffs; under most circumstances, that will not cut it. In the playoffs, defense is usually the name for teams that want to win the Stanley Cup. The Stars firepower and ability has helped them beat the Flames and the Avalanche, but now they face a Vegas Golden Knights team with two goalies capable of winning a Stanley Cup. Marc-Andre Fleury has been benched but knows how to win a Stanley Cup and how to play in the deep playoff round. Vegas is also able to light the lamp with snipers like Max Pacioretty and Shea Theodore. Unless Dallas can get a big effort from Anton Khudobin or Ben Bishop in goal, they will not stand a chance, as the Knights defense is too strong to allow the Stars to ignite. This series could be over quickly, Vegas in five.

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Predictions Made by Frank Fleming on September 6, 2020 at 3:30 am