Predicting the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs...If They Started On Time (Part 3)
Can you believe it's been two months since the NHL closed shop? And that we should already be in the conference finals? A lot has been taken from us hockey fans, and everyone else, due to COVID-19. However, through the power of imagination and EA Sports (it's in the game), the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs roll on in spirit. I've already made my playoff picks based on the current NHL standings (by points percentage) for two rounds, and this is what my bracket looks like after one round:
Round 2 saw me predict another sweep for Vegas, Colorado knocking off the defending champs in five, Pittsburgh restoring order against Washington in six, and the Bolts beating Boston in six setting up a 2018 Eastern Conference Finals rematch.
Four teams are halfway to winning the greatest prize in sports, but only two will rise to hockey's ultimate stage and compete for the Stanley Cup. Here's the tale of the tape for hockey's final four.
Western Conference Final
Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8)
Previous Meetings: This is the first playoff meeting between the Avs and Knights.
Last Time: Vegas went out in round one last year, but the year before they made it to the WCF, beating Winnipeg in five after dropping Game 1. Colorado upset Calgary in the first round before falling to San Jose, the same team that beat Vegas, in seven.
Season Series: Two blowout victories for the Avalanche, 6-1 and 7-3. Impressively, both wins came in Vegas, a notoriously tough place to win.
Why Colorado Wins: I've mentioned it twice, but the Avalanche's top line is too good to be overstated. Nathan MacKinnon and friends could have a field day against an average at best Vegas blue-line, although the Golden Knights do have some outstanding defensive forwards (Mark Stone, William Karlsson) looking to slow them down. Cale Makar is leaps and bounds the best defenseman in the series, and Samuel Girard is better than any Vegas blue-liner not named Shea Theodore. If Colorado gets this far, you'd have to think either Philip Grubauer or Pavel Francouz will have found their footing as the starter (my bet is on the former). Colorado strikes me as a team that's either falling out early or going deep, and I clearly don't see the former fate in the cards.
Why Vegas Wins: Because the Golden Knights have Mark Stone, and William Karlsson, and Shea Theodore, and a lot of other good players, too. All three of those guys can score at a great clip and shutdown Colorado's stars. Vegas' depth up front and in goal is probably their biggest strength, as their second line of Reilly Smith, Paul Stastny, and Jonathan Marchessault is one of the best second lines in hockey, and Alex Tuch is way too good to be a 3rd liner. Their top-four is good enough with the Alec Martinez addition not to hinder them significantly, but if they win this series, it's probably in spite of their blue-line, not because of it.
NHL 20 Says: The Golden Knights manage to hold Colorado's big guns in check. MacKinnon, Rantanen, Landeskog, and Makar tally only two points each, as the Golden Knights head to the Final for the second time in three years as a franchise with a five-game victory.
Prediction: For some reason, I feel like the Golden Knights are going to run out of steam here. Maybe they're a little overconfident from starting 8-0. Fleury struggles out of the gate and Peter DeBoer is too slow to make the change to Lehner. Colorado turns in their most complete effort of the playoffs, advancing to the Final in five.
Eastern Conference Final
Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6)
Previous Meetings: Pittsburgh edged out the Lightning, who lost starter Ben Bishop in Game 1, with a 2-1 Game 7 victory. Bryan Rust scored both goals for the Penguins in the decisive contest.
Last Time: The Penguins and Lightning were both unable to win a game in the playoffs last year despite the former having two of the last three rings and the latter the ultimate Goliath.. Pittsburgh has won four of the five ECF appearances they've made with Crosby (08, 09, 16, and 17), with a 2013 sweep to Boston the lone exception. Tampa Bay actually lost to Pittsburgh in seven here in 2016 after beating the Rangers in seven to advance to their second (and most recent) Final in franchise history.
Season Series: Three close Lightning wins. Tampa Bay did sweep the season series, but won twice by one and once by two, with one victory coming in 3-on-3 overtime.
Why Tampa Bay Wins: They're the deepest team in the entire league, and they also have the most star-power in the league. Granted, that combination wasn't enough to win so much as a game in the playoffs last year, but they're much more physical this time around and more determined to turn 2019 scars into 2020 success. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy have been elite for a while. Their supporting cast of Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and others needs no introduction. So long as the Lightning don't get in their own way, this is already their Cup to lose, but that's easier said than done.
Why Pittsburgh Wins: Because they're the new Red Wings. This team just doesn't die. Right when you're ready to count them out as contenders, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and some guy you've never heard of combined for twenty points a series and vault the Penguins to top of the league. Jake Guentzel should be back by now, adding to their already nice forward depth. The defense isn't perfect, but it's far from a liability and probably better than their 2016 blue-line. The key will be finding consistency in goal, but whether it's Tristan Jarry or Matt Murray (the starter in 2016), I'm not too worried for the Pens.
NHL 20 Says: Stamkos and Point combined for seventeen points as the Lightning bring out the brooms en route to third Final appearance in franchise history.
Prediction: The Lightning once again flip the all-time series record even. Tampa Bay feels like a snowball rapidly gaining momentum, and it's too much for Pittsburgh's equally battle-tested core to stop them. The Caps had their time twice this decade; now, it's Tampa Bay's turn. Lightning in five.