Previewing Round 3 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
Well, at least I won't have to make a separate article for the Flyers this round. \_(ツ)_/¯
Twenty-four teams divided by six weeks equals just four teams remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, all eight wins away from achieving the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup. A huge thank you to everyone who put together the Toronto bubble, but with so few teams remaining, the remainder will take place in Edmonton, with some players' families joining them for the home stretch.
It's promising to be an exciting Conference Finals, with two similar matchups. Both series feature one favorite and one underdog from the Conference Semifinals. Both series feature one team that made it to this stage in 2018 and one that hasn't been here in the salary cap era (since 2004). It's the unstoppable force versus the immovable object in both conferences, as a top-ten regular season offense squares off with a top-five regular season defense. It's the preview of hockey's main event, with two teams left to wonder what could've been and the others to play for what could be after these next two grueling weeks. We know the stakes, now it's time which competitors will advance from final four to triumphant two.
Eastern Conference Final: #2 Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6) vs. #7 New York Islanders (35-23-10)
Previous Meetings: A really recent one in 2016. The Islanders had just advanced to the second round for the first time since 1993, but quickly found out they weren't ready to handle a true Cup contender. After dropping Game 1, the Lightning turned on the jets and won the next four straight, though they needed OT in Games 3 and 4 (the only two games of the series in Brooklyn) to prevail.
The Road Here: Tampa Bay finished the regular season not quite as dominant as last year, but that was still good enough for the second best record in the East and the second seed thanks to a 2-1-0 round robin showing. Their first two games against Columbus in Round 1 were an absolute battle, with the Bolts needing five overtimes to take Game 1 only to see Columbus even the series.
That may have broken last year's group, but this season's hardly seemed phased. The Lightning have looked better and better as the playoffs have gone, going 8-1 since that Game 2 defeat to the Blue Jackets. Tampa has mixed in a couple thrilling OT victories (including both series clinchers) with outright dominance, handling the Blue Jackets and Bruins in five games apiece.
Tampa's dominance was expected; the Islanders' certainly wasn't. After a 16-point streak early in the season, New York went flat down the stretch and was in serious danger of missing the playoffs entirely when the season paused. They drew a pretty easy matchup in the qualifier round, taking down the Florida Panthers in four games. Surprisingly, they met just as little resistance from the Capitals in the first round. Washington's potent offense was completely stymied, failing to score more than three goals in each of the series' five games. New York looked even better in Round 2, but some blips on the goalie radar and three uncalled cries for an OT hero ensured they needed seven games to finish off the Flyers, which to their credit they did convincingly.
The Last Time Here: No one has made more Conference Finals appearances since 2015 than the Lightning, who have been here three times. That's pretty impressive, but what isn't is that they've only advanced once, losing their last time here. Each of those series has gone seven. Most recently, they were shutout in Games 6 and 7 by Braden Holtby and the Capitals, squandering a 3-2 series lead - just like they did to Pittsburgh in 2016.
Season Series: New York took the first two meetings in decisive fashion, outscoring the Lightning 10-3, winning once at home and once in Tampa. The Lightning did find a way to take the rubber match, 3-1.
Who's the Favorite: Tampa has to be considered the favorites to win the Cup at this point. No team left has a better record than the Lightning (10-2 in the playoffs, 12-3-0 if you count the round robin), and it's not actually all that close. Even with Steven Stamkos shelved for the entire playoffs, the Lightning have looked like the juggernaut they were supposed to be in last year's playoff. Ondrej Palat is coming off a dominant series against Boston, scoring five goals, including the series-swinging OT winner in Game 2. Victor Hedman is a juggernaut of his own in all three ends, and he scored four goals against Boston, including the series-clinching double OT winner. Andrei Vasilevskiy is thriving rather than being thumped in the playoffs. Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov are carrying the load. And the supporting cast is better than ever. This really feels like Tampa's year.
However, the Islanders aren't going to lie over and die to Tampa Bay. This will be their biggest test by far, as so far they've beaten up on the identity crisis Panthers, bubble vacationing Capitals, and a Flyers team that went 0-for-13 in terms of playing a truly great game in the playoffs and on power-play opportunities in Round 2. Tampa's power-play is going to be a little more dangerous.
If the Islanders are going to pull out their first trip to the Finals since 1984, their top six needs to maintain form. Mat Barzal is truly a special talent, and he looked like a game-breaker against the Flyers; I audibly groaned every time I saw him on the ice, because I knew it meant trouble. Anders Lee has picked up the pace after a slow start and is dominant around the net. Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey have incredible chemistry, and they're playing with a tremendous but underrated offensive talent in Anthony Beauvillier. And Round 2 was everything but the finish for Jordan Eberle, who looked fantastic. We all know about Barry Trotz's incredible defense, but the Islanders need to keep being comfortable with winning 3-2 rather than 2-1 or 1-0. The Lightning are too powerful to contain for long stretches.
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: Externally, there's a ton of it on the Lightning. That seems to have weighed on them in years past, but there's a certain calmness surrounding this year's squad that makes me think they've blocked out almost of all it inside the dressing room.
There isn't much pressure to win for the Islanders, but I think there is a decent amount on them to stay competitive (I'm adding this part while they're getting thumped 8-2 in Game 1, but I was thinking about it before the puck dropped). The last time they played the Lightning in the playoffs, the team had taken their biggest step in 23 years (sound familiar?) but didn't look like they belonged. There are nine Isles left from that series that want to prove they've taken enough of a step to hang with the big guys this year.
Conn Smythe Watch
TB - Brayden Point and Victor Hedman have to be the favorites here. The former is looking much more like his 2018 playoff self (16 points in 17 games) than the 2019 disappointment form he (1 goal in 4 games) and his teammates conjured. Point has two overtime winners under his belt - one in five overtimes, one to clinch a series - and was lights out against Boston, scoring 8 points. Hedman leads the Lightning in time-on-ice (26:00, more than 2 minutes higher than runner-up Mikhail Sergachev) and posted four goals in the Bruins series, none bigger than the double OT winner in the series-clinching Game 5.
NYI - It's a toss up between literally everyone the entire top six. Right now, Josh Bailey leads the group in points (17 in 17 games), but Anthony Beauvillier has the edge in goals (8). Everyone is in double digit point territory, except for Lee, who has bounced back from a slow start to score 7 goals and 2 assists - the same line as JG Pageau, who had some clutch goals against Philly (game-tying goal in Game 2, game-winning goal in Game 4 - both in the 3rd period).
The Pick: It's the same thing I wrote in Tampa's second round preview against Boston: the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Islanders are a really great team, and I definitely think they could (and will) give the Lightning a run for a money. But Tampa Bay just feels like they're on another level right now, and I think some of the Islanders mid-tier players are due for regression to the mean. Lightning in 5.
Also, I'm sorry I wasn't able to get this up before the series started. I promise I made the picks themselves before Sunday night.
Oddly Specific Prediction (Idea Credit - Down Goes Brown): This a battle between the Lightning, who played just the second five overtime game since 1936, and the Islanders, who played four overtime periods over three games against the Flyers. Forty percent of games in their 2016 series needed overtime. So it would only make sense for every game in this series to end in regulation.
Western Conference Final: #1 Vegas Golden Knights (39-27-4) vs. #3 Dallas Stars (37-27-4)
Previous Meetings: It's Vegas, so yeah, first time.
The Road Here: These teams were separated by four points in both the regular season and round robin, with Vegas starting red hot and never slowing down. After earning the #1 seed with a perfect round robin performance, they steamrolled over the fading Blackhawks in five. It looked like their second round series against the Canucks would end the same way, but rookie goalie Thatcher Demko nearly stole the series, allowing two goals on an unreal 125 shots (.984 save percentage) in the final three games of the series. Vegas couldn't breakthrough until the waning moments of Game 7, with Shea Theodore scoring the series winner in the last six minutes of the 3rd.
On the other hand, the Stars started very slow, winning just one round robin game (and it was a shootout win at that), before falling behind two games to one in Calgary. Facing a 4-3 deficit late in Game 4, Joe Pavelski saved the season from going on life support with a last minute equalizer, setting up John Klingberg's OT winner. Since then, the Stars have been cruising, taking Games 5 and 6 to advance before silencing the previously unstoppable Avalanche. It's surprising to see Dallas get this far, but what's even more surprising is how they've done it. The Stars scored the 6th fewest goals per game in the regular season, but they're the 4th best offensive team since the return to play.
The Last Time Here: The rookie Knights took to task another Western Conference Final first-timer, the Winnipeg Jets. After dropping Game 1 on the road, Vegas took off, making Vezina caliber goalie Connor Hellebuyck look human and shutting down some of the Jets top scorers. Each of the next four games were close, but all four were won by Vegas, sending them to the Finals, where they met the same fate as Tampa - defeat at the hands of the Capitals.
Season Series: Back in the regular season, when the Stars were twice less likely to score four plus goals than in the playoffs, Dallas did just that against Malcom Subban, beating the Knights at home 4-2. Subban faired much better in the second meeting, stopping 28 of 30 before watching Max Pacioretty score the overtime winner. The teams have not yet faced off in 2020.
Who's the Favorite: The Golden Knights are the one seed for a reason, and unlike the Flyers, they have recent playoff success to back it up. Vegas is just two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final as an expansion team, and there's a very strong chance they return. Credit to only GM George McPhee, who is still with the team, and new GM Kelly McCrimmon for not getting complacent, adding Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and Robin Lehner since losing to the Capitals. The Lehner move has brought out some unwelcomed goalie controversy with Marc-Andre Fleury, but it appears Lehner has emerged as the true starter (assuming the only reason Fleury started Game 1 is to give Lehner rest after starting Game 6 and 7 against Vancouver on back-to-back nights).
Surrounding those new additions are a host of 2018 heroes, led by the former Florida gang of Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. William Karlsson isn't the 43-goal scorer he was two years ago, but he's a quality two-way center on a reasonable contract. Alex Tuch and especially Shea Theodore have taken steps forward since that first deep run, with the latter emerging as one of the best defensemen in the league and a future Norris candidate only a year after battling testicular cancer. Everyone, even the depth players, are clicking right now for Vegas - their gaudy 59.86% Corsi* and 63.16% Expected Goals For at 5-on-5 are tops in the playoffs.
(*If you're wondering what that means, Corsi is percentage of shot attempts. In non-math words, Vegas is taking about 3 shots (regardless of whether they hit or miss the net) for every 2 their opponents take, or almost 60%, which is REALLY good. Expected Goals works similarly and is what it sounds like.)
It's fairly surprising to see Dallas still here, especially considering they were less than 20 seconds away from going down 3-1 to Calgary in Round 1. But what's even more surprising is how they got here. In the regular season, the Stars finished 26th in goals for per game (2.58) but allowed the second fewest goals against per game (2.52). In the playoffs?
Try allowing more goals per game (3.29) that made the Conference Semifinals, let alone the final four, but ranking fifth in the league in goals for per game entering this series (they actually dropped to sixth after Game 1, when they scored one goal - but won). It hasn't even big their two biggest names - Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn - doing most of the damage. Dallas is going with offense by committee, just like in the regular season, only everyone is suddenly shooting the lights out. Joe Pavelski the whole Calgary series. Dennis Gurianov closed out the Flames with a four-goal performance in Game 6. Alexander Radulov went off against the Avs. Undrafted rookie Joel Kiviranta had a HAT TRICK, including the OT winner, in Game 7 against Colorado, which was just his 14th career NHL game. Defenseman Miro Heiskanen leads the final four in points. And with starter Ben Bishop unfit to play, Anton Khudobin has emerged from underrated backup to solid starter (.914 SV%).
Who's Feeling the Most Pressure: HOT TAKE ALERT - I'm saying Dallas. Usually the team that wins this category is at least a draw in this category, but Dallas gives me good reason to switch it up. It all goes back to the effing horsecrap comments by Stars CEO Jim Lites when describing the play of the Stars two best forwards, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin, last year (his actual comments were a little more vulgar). It would be one thing if Benn and Seguin were carrying the Stars here, but if they stay silent in this series and the Stars bow out, I wonder if Lites pressures GM Jim Nill into changes. Besides, Vegas is young enough to survive losing this series, and their cap situation is balmy compared to last summer's dumpster fire.
Conn Smythe Watch
VGK - Much like Tampa, it's a two horse race between a tremendous two-way forward and dominant defenseman. Mark Stone was a finalist for the Selke trophy (given to the league's best defensive forward), an award no winger has won since Dallas' Jeri Lehtinen in 2000. But Stone isn't just a one-trick pony - no matter how good your defense, you won't be nominated for the Selke if you don't score. Stone certainly has done that in these playoffs; his 15 points lead all Vegas forwards. However, Shea Theodore actually has more points (16), including the all-important GWG in the 3rd period of Game 7. It's no surprise Theodore has dominated in these playoffs after emerging as a true #1 defenseman in the regular season. He's probably the favorite heading into this series. Alex Tuch, who leads the Knights with eight goals, also earns an honorable mention.
DAL - This conversation starts and ends with Miro Heiskanen. Nathan MacKinnon is the only person with more points in these playoffs, and Heiskanen is a huge reason why his season came to an end. No Star has played more in these playoffs than Heiskanen (25:51 per game). Among Stars defensemen with at least 100 5-on-5 minutes, he's the only with his head above water in Corsi (which means when he's on the ice, the Stars outshoot their opponents - something no other Dallas defenseman can say in these playoffs) and also leads his position in Expected Goals For. This kid is an absolute beast, and if Dallas goes all the way, he should almost certainly be the one with the extra hardware.
The Pick: In the round two previews, I said Dallas might be my favorite to win the Cup if they took down Colorado. I feel much less concerned about their offense since it maintained form against Colorado. Vegas has a better backend than the Avs, but not by a ton. I think Dallas smells blood in the water with how Vegas struggled to put away the Canucks last round, and ultimately, I think that's what decides this series. Stars in 6.
Oddly Specific Prediction: After that other-worldly hat-trick in Game 7, Joel Kiviranta returns to human form and doesn't score a single goal in this series.