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NHL semifinal preview: Is Vegas-Tampa Bay in the cards?

·7-min read

Not a Presidents' Trophy winner in sight. Not even a No. 1 seed.

Yes, the Stanley Cup playoffs will roll into the semifinal round without a single division winner involved. In fact, only one team that hosted its first game of the tournament remains alive for the Stanley Cup after a series of upsets defined the lead-up to the final four.

However, that doesn't mean elite teams aren't still in the mix. The defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning seemed to restore the natural order in the Central Division, advancing as a No. 3 seed, while the Vegas Golden Knights are the surviving top seed after only losing out on the league's best record on the final few days of the regular season.

Tampa and Vegas enter the semifinal as massive favorites over the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens, respectively, and teams which separated themselves from far more level playing fields as No. 4 seeds in their divisions.

What's interesting is that three of the final four from last season (plus whatever team Corey Perry is on) have returned to do battle. Despite their ratings, these are proven postseason entities.

Should expectations hold true (and irrespective to whatever powers Perry possesses), we will not be ruing a lack of heavy hitters with a dream final between the Golden Knights and Lightning on deck. That said, Montreal and New York are built to not make things easy.

Here's a closer look at the first between-division matchups of the entire season:

Golden Knights (2) vs. Canadiens (4)

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JUNE 10:  The Vegas Golden Knights celebrate a third-period goal by William Carrier (2nd R) #28 against the Colorado Avalanche in Game Six of the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena on June 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Golden Knights defeated the Avalanche 6-3 to win the series.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The Golden Knights put the league on notice with a domoinat performance vs. the Avalanche. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The Golden Knights did more than survive the highest level and most competitive series of the postseason to this point. Recovering from some early adversity, the Golden Knights thoroughly dominated the league's No. 1 team in the regular season, the Colorado Avalanche, to advance into the third round in six games, in turn serving the rest of the league notice.

For their latest performance, the fact they've followed the most difficult path to this point, and that they boast the most powerful home-ice advantage remaining in the tournament, many believe the Golden Knights are front runners to win the Stanley Cup in just their fourth season in existence — and understandably so. It seems Vegas saved its best hockey for the postseason (and that's saying something after nearly carrying a wire-to-wire lead to a Presidents' Trophy), knocking off two of the top teams in the NHL in succession.

However, the most considerable advantage for the Golden Knights at this point is that they are, on paper, clashing with an objectively inferior opponent next. Montreal finished with the 18th-best record and under normal circumstances would not have qualified for the postseason (for a second straight season), while the Golden Knights have performed at the very height of the NHL since the season began.

Theoretically, the discrepancy could work in Montreal's favor. The Canadiens have already exceeded expectations, were never supposed to be here, and for that reason can play freely. However when digging deeper, or at least beyond narratives, it's clear the stylistic matchups, and more specifically the advantages the Canadiens created for themselves to beat the Leafs and Jets in succession, simply won't apply in this series versus Vegas. 

In fact in many ways, these two teams are spitting images of each other, at least in design. Both are anchored from a forward perspective by defensively-dominant top lines. Both have Olympic-level netminders. Both have impressive and deep defensive cores. And both love to earn advantages at the margins. The difference is that Vegas very much looks like the advanced version between the two. What the Canadiens do well, it seems the Golden Knights are doing at a higher level.

Compounding that, Montreal seems destined for a rude awakening Sunday night in Game 1. For the first time this season, the Canadiens will experience not only just a truly elite team and a raucous crowd, but a combination of the two. Used to hitting changeups into the bleachers this postseason, it will be nothing but fastballs from here on out, and I can't imagine that won't require an adjustment.

In the series, it simply won't be enough for Montreal to lean on shutdown centre Phillip Danault, the defensive combination of Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot, and the brilliance of Carey Price. Vegas is nothing if not deep, and likely will have the advantage at almost every layer of the competition.

Prediction: Vegas in five

Lightning (3) vs. Islanders (2)

RALEIGH, NC - JUNE 8: Brayden Point #21of the Tampa Bay Lightning scores a goal and celebrates with teammates in Game Five of the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes on June 8, 2021 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)
There's no reason not to believe in the Lightning. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

While the NHL has eschewed the use of conferences this season, we're receiving a rematch of the Eastern Conference final anyway, with the Lightning and Islanders meeting again for the chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. As we know, it was a fairly decisive six-game triumph last summer for the Lightning, who went on to capture Lord Stanley.

The paths aren't identical for each, but we can certainly draw some parallels from last season in the bubble. Virtually unchanged from a roster perspective despite the immense amount of pressure under the weight of the salary cap, the Lightning have once again cruised into Round 3. Meanwhile, the Islanders have required consecutive comebacks, once again overcoming serious bouts of adversity in order to win two rounds. True to form, what they may lack in talent, the Islanders continue to make up for with buy-in, structure and coaching. It's what has brought them to this point.

I suppose the question is: what would make the result different? The Lightning have not been slowed by the cost of winning or fatigue associated with going the distance only 10 or so months ago. In fact, they may be stronger on paper with Steven Stamkos back and healthy, and with a shortened regular season helping them arrive back at this point with less wear and tear on the bodies. 

So to overcome what it couldn't last summer, it seems as though it rests on advancement from New York. 

Perhaps unexpectedly, the Islanders lead the postseason in scoring to this point, scoring 43 times in 12 games and averaging more than 3.5 goals, while receiving .929 total save percentage from netminders Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov. That iron-clad winning combination has been enough to carry them through, and would certainly suffice against the Lightning. 

What's interesting, though, is that the Islanders were performing at a similarly elite statistical level through two rounds in the postseason last summer before running into Tampa Bay. There, in three times in six games the Islanders were held to one goal, while they managed more than two just twice in the series. Suffice to say, what has worked to great success in back-to-back postseasons — in which the Islanders have been on the right side of the handshake line five times — hadn't versus Tampa, which outscored them 20-12 in the series.

As brilliant as the Islanders have been this postseason, Tampa has been better against superior competition. Knocking off the league's No. 3 and No. 4 seeds from the regular season back-to-back, the Lightning have scored more goals per preferred unit of measured time, while allowing considerably fewer.

If there is hope for the Islanders, it's that they can inherently level the playing field as the league's most disciplined team. Boosted by the return of Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning have scored 15 of their 38 goals through 11 games on the power play, while the Islanders have spent less than 40 minutes killing penalties over a span of 12 games. 

Still, the pick is Tampa Bay.

Prediction: Lightning in 6

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