The NHL’s final four is set in Edmonton. The first-seeded Vegas Golden Knights and third-seeded Dallas Stars will meet in the Western Conference Final while the second-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning will square off against the sixth-seeded New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference Final. NoVa Caps previews both series:
#2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. #6 New York Islanders
Regular-season series: 2-1-0 Islanders (who had a +5 goal differential vs. Lightning)
Outlook: The Islanders have already taken out two of the Eastern Conference’s best teams in the Washington Capitals (five games in the first round) and Philadelphia Flyers (seven games in the second round) after defeating the Florida Panthers in four games during the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. In comparison, the Lightning went 2-1-0 in the round-robin tournament and defeated both the Columbus Blue Jackets (first round) and Boston Bruins (second round) in five games.
Both teams are coming into this series on a role as the Lightning finished the regular season going 36-8-2 and are 10-3 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs while the Islanders are 12-5 since the restart after they went into the NHL Pause on a season-long seven-game losing streak (0-3-4).
The significant storylines entering the Eastern Conference Final is how the Islanders, one of the strongest defensive teams in the NHL, will do at shutting down a Lightning offense that averaged a league-high 3.47 goals-per-game during the regular season. They did a great job defensively in their series against the Capitals, allowing just eight goals in five games, and Flyers, yielding 16 in seven. They have also done an excellent job of preventing the Capitals and Flyers from shooting the puck as they are among the top teams in shots-against. However, the Lightning have been the NHL’s highest-scoring team for three consecutive years, and not many teams can match their firepower with forwards Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point.
The goaltending matchup is going to interesting to watch as Thomas Greiss, who is 2-1-0 with a .960 save percentage, a 1.08 goals-against average, and one shutout, has been lights out for the Islanders since taking over in Game 4 against the Flyers and appears to be entering the series as the Islanders starter. In comparison, Andrei Vasilevskiy has gone 10-3-0 with a .931 save percentage and a 1.91 goals-against average during the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Lightning. Greiss is 6-3-1 with a .918 save percentage, a 2.94 goals-against average, one shutout in 11 career regular-season games for the Lightning, and 1-4 with an .890 save percentage and a 3.42 goals-against average in the Islanders’ five-game second-round series loss to the Lightning in 2016.
While the numbers favor the Islanders heading into the series, the Lightning have breezed their way through a tough team to play against in the Blue Jackets and the Presidents’ Trophy Bruins. They seem to be motivated after a record-setting 2018-19 campaign ended with a stunning four-game loss to the Blue Jackets in the first round. The numbers below scream the Islanders, but common sense says the Lightning. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Stanley Cup Playoff Lightning Leaders: C Brayden Point (six goals, 12 assists, 18 points), F Nikita Kucherov (12 assists), D Victor Hedman (+11 rating), G Andrei Vasilevskiy (.931 save percentage)
Stanley Cup Playoff Lightning Stats: 3.33 goals-per-game (third), 2.07 goals-against (second), 17.1% power-play efficiency (14th), 81.3% penalty-killing (14th), 35.5 shots-per-game (fifth), 32.2 shots-against per game (15th), 47.7% faceoff-winning percentage (18th), 55.51% Corsi-for percentage (fourth), 57.48% expected goals-for percentage (fourth), 55.36% scoring chances-for percentage (fourth), .9436 team save percentage (fifth), 1.032 PDO (third)
Stanley Cup Playoff Islanders Leaders: F Anthony Beauvillier (eight goals), F Josh Bailey (15 assists, 17 points), D Scott Mayfield (+11 rating), C Jean-Gabriel Pageau (+11 rating), G Thomas Greiss (.949 save percentage)
Stanley Cup Playoff Islanders Stats: 3.00 goals-per-game (seventh), 2.31 goals-against (third), 18.2% power-play efficiency (11th), 81.4% penalty-killing (13th), 31.2 shots-per-game (13th), 27.7 shots-against per game (fourth), 50.2% faceoff-winning percentage (11th), 48.83% Corsi-for percentage (16th), 55.36% expected goals-for percentage (sixth), 51.86% scoring chances-for percentage (12th), .9393 team save percentage (sixth), 1.024 PDO (fifth)
X-Factors: C Blake Coleman (TB), Pageau (NYI)
Prediction: Lightning in 5
#1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. #3 Dallas Stars
Regular-season series: 1-0-1 Stars (who had +2 goal differential vs. Golden Knights), Golden Knights won 5-3 in a round-robin game
Outlook: The Golden Knights are the hottest team in the NHL dating back to a month before the regular season stopped as they were 11-2-0 in their final 13 games and 11-4 since the resumption of play, including 3-0-0 in the round-robin to earn the top-seed in the Western Conference. The Stars went into the NHL pause on a six-game losing streak (0-4-2) and dropped three of their first four games of their Stanley Cup Playoff run but have since won eight of their last 12 to advance to the Western Conference Final.
The Golden Knights got to this point by defeating the Chicago Blackhawks (five games) in the first round and Vancouver Canucks (seven games) in the second, while the Stars eliminated the Calgary Flames (six games) in the first and Colorado Avalanche (seven games) in the second.
The key storylines heading into this series are the offensive play of both teams as each is among the league leaders in goals-per-game entering the series, and this matchup features the two best goaltending tandems in the NHL this season. The Golden Knights have Robin Lehner, who is 8-4-0 with a .918 save percentage, a 1.98 goals-against average, and three shutouts this postseason, and Marc-Andre Fleury, who is 3-0-0 with an .893 save percentage and a 2.67 goals-against average, in net. At the same time, the Stars boast Ben Bishop, who is 1-2-0 with an .844 save percentage and a 5.43 goals-against average but been unfit to play in six of the seven games against the Avalanche, and Anton Khudobin, who is 8-5-0 with a .909 save percentage and a 2.94 goals-against average.
One fascinating thing to keep in mind entering Sunday’s Game 1 (8 PM ET, NBC) is that both teams made coaching changes during the regular season. The Stars replaced head coach Jim Montgomery with assistant Rick Bowness on December 10 after Montgomery had alcohol issues and went 20-13-5 under him in the regular season before their postseason run. The Golden Knights hired Pete DeBoer after firing Gerard Gallant on January 15 and went 15-5-2 under DeBoer during the regular season to vault to the top of the Pacific Division. This matchup also features the two best defensemen during this tournament in 21-year-old Miro Heiskanen (Stars) and 25-year-old Shea Theodore (Golden Knights).
The Stars managed to escape a wild series with the Avalanche, but the Golden Knights have been a much different team since their coaching change and are arguably the NHL’s best in terms of possession. While the Stars’ offense is on a roll and have great goaltending, the Golden Knights are even deeper in both areas. If the Stars are going to win the series, the emphasis has to be on getting back to their structured defensive game from the regular season when they were second in goals-against (average of 2.52 per game). With the way the Golden Knights have been playing under DeBoer, though, it will be a tough out for the Stars.
Stanley Cup Playoff Golden Knights Leaders: F Alex Tuch (eight goals), Theodore (10 assists, 16 points), D Alec Martinez (+12 rating), G Robin Lehner (.918 save percentage)
Stanley Cup Playoff Golden Knights Stats: 3.27 goals-per-game (sixth), 2.33 goals-against (fourth), 20.5% power-play efficiency (eighth), 87.8% penalty-killing (fifth), 37.1 shots-per-game (third), 24.7 shots-against per game (first), 43.7% faceoff-winning percentage (23rd), 60.62% Corsi-for percentage (first), 64.11% expected goals-for percentage (first), 60.94% scoring chances-for percentage (first), .9142 team save percentage (15th), .992 PDO (13th)
Stanley Cup Playoff Stars Leaders: F Denis Gurianov (eight goals), F Joe Pavelski (eight goals), Heiskanen (16 assists, 21 points), D Jamie Oleksiak (+6 rating), F Joel Kaviranta (+6 rating), G Anton Khudobin (.909 save percentage)
Stanley Cup Playoff Stars Stats: 3.31 goals-per-game (fourth), 3.50 goals-against (T-19th), 28.3% power-play efficiency (fifth), 82.3% penalty-killing (10th), 32.9 shots-per-game (10th), 33.1 shots-against per game (19th), 49.9% faceoff-winning percentage (13th), 48.21% Corsi-for percentage (17th), 49.34% expected goals-for percentage (12nd), 50% scoring chances-for percentage (15th), .9067 team save percentage (17th), ..997 PDO (11th)
X-Factors: Martinez (Golden Knights), C Tyler Seguin (Stars)
Prediction: Golden Knights in 6
By Harrison Brown