And then there were four. After a crazy playoffs that kicked on Aug. 1 with the first ever NHL qualifying round, we are now down to the conference finals. The teams representing the East, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders; in the West, Vegas Golden Knight and Dallas Stars. I fully expected Tampa Bay and Vegas to get to this point and both the Stars and Islanders are surprises to me and many others. Today, I am going to BRKDWN each teams’ chances of winning Lord Stanley and highlighting an X-Factor and weakness on each team.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are no strangers to making appearances in the Eastern Conference finals as this is their fourth trip since 2015. The Lightning are a powerhouse and have been in win-now mode for five years now with no cup to show for it yet. On paper, this is the best team in the NHL and lately they have been playing like it. The Lightning got their redemption over Columbus in the first round by winning in 5 games, including one of the longest playoff games in NHL history in Game 1 which went 5OTs and was won by Brayden Point. Next, Tampa absolutely dismantled another cup favorite in the Bruins in 5 games on a OT winner from stud Victor Hedman in Game 5. Now, the Lightning go up against the pesky Islanders and the best coach in the league Barry Trotz.
X-Factor: Steven Stamkos
Stamkos has not played an NHL game since Feb. 25 dealing with an injury and it’s been a real mystery what the injury is as Stamkos has not even been seen publicly in the bubble. Stamkos is already ruled out of the Conference Finals meaning if he does suit up it would be in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Lightning are doing fine without Stamkos so far, but adding him to the lineup in a potential finals matchup could tip the odds in their favor.
Weakness: Mental Toughness
There are no real weaknesses on paper for Tampa — they have a great forward group, strong defence and fantastic goaltending. However, the only thing that may stop them is between the ears. Tampa has constantly collapsed one way or another in the Conference Finals and has been unable to get over the hump of going all the way. GM BriseBois added toughness in the offseason and during the trade deadline to give Tampa more versatility in the hopes of extinguishing past playoff losses.
New York Islanders
Who would have thought the Islanders would be doing this good without former star centre John Tavares? In their second year under hockey wizard Barry Trotz, the Islanders have reached their first Conference Finals appearance since 1993. The Islanders play a very systems-based game and it has worked out for them so far, as they dispatched Trotz’ former team the Washington Capitals in 5 games in the first round and then going to the distance with the Flyers in the second round. With a quick turnaround, the Islanders must regroup quickly if they are going to challenge the powerhouse Lightning.
X-Factor: Surprise High Powered Offence
Throughout Trotz’ tenure, the Islanders have the reputation of being a very boring team to watch. However, since the start of the NHL bubble, they are the highest scoring team in the NHL since August 1. New York has gotten major contributions from forwards such as Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, J.G. Pageau and of course Matt Barzal. Josh Bailey is also a dynamic playmaker that can’t be overlooked. If the Islanders are able to keep up their offence against Tampa, look out.
Weakness: A True #1 Goalie
Had to be a little picky with this one. While Varlamov has had a very solid postseason so far, his last two games against the Flyers in which he allowed 9 goals gave Trotz the decision to go with Thomas Greiss in Game 7, in which Greiss got a shutout. While having a great goalie tandem like the Islanders is more positive than negative, not being able to fully trust a bonafide starter may hurt the team in the long run.
The Dallas Stars are a weird team to figure out. During the regular season, they were the lowest scoring team going into the bubble (out of 24 teams) and somehow they have figured it out and more often than not are scoring literally five goals a game. This offensive explosion was not predicted by anyone and their sound team game has delivered them to this point so far. After closing out the Calgary Flames in 6 games, the Stars blew a 3-1 series lead against the Avalanche and won Game 7 in OT scored by Joel Kiviranta. The Stars have received by far the most secondary scoring of all the teams left in the playoffs and they hope to continue that trend for as long as they can to win the Stanley Cup.
X-Factors: Jamie Benn & Tyler Seguin
As mentioned earlier, Dallas’ depth around the lineup is carrying the load offensively for them. Their two highest paid players in captain Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have combined for 2 goals … it is honestly a surprise that they made it this far with almost zero production from them. If one or both of these players finally wake up and the depth continues to produce, the Cup might be heading back to Texas.
Weakness: Can the Depth Keep it Up?
In conjunction with the X-Factor, if the depth is unable to keep up this pace and Seguin and Benn are both no shows on the score sheet, the series between Vegas could be over quickly. While it seems unlikely that everyone on the Stars will shut-off at the same time, if even two or three players regress it could cause problems for the Stars.
Vegas Golden Knights
Still only in their third season of existence the Vegas Golden Knights are back in the Western Conference Finals. The roster is a lot different than the one in 2018 and the added star power has helped Vegas reach this point again. Vegas has been getting major contributions from top forwards such as Mark Stone, Rielly Smith, Max Pacioretty and others while on defence, Shea Theodore continues to improve his superstar status as one of the top defencemen in the league. Similar to the Islanders, Vegas is also rocking a two goalie tandem in Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury. The Golden Knights sliced their way through the Blackhawks in round 1 in 5 games and went the distance against the Vancouver Canucks (mostly Thatcher Demko for Games 5, 6 and 7) coming out on top.
Vegas plays with arguably the most tempo in the entire NHL as all four lines can skate with the best of them. Not only does the team play fast, but they are relentless on tracking down pucks as well. Players like Mark Stone, who is the best defensive winger in the NHL, leads by example and inspires the rest of his team to play the same. Any team’s opposing defence needs to be on their toes when Vegas is on the forecheck as their speed and tenacity could give them an edge.
Vegas could be a little bit of a chippy team at times and it could cost them on the opposing teams powerplay. In the past series, Vancouver was able to capitalize on the powerplay as Vegas plays a little too aggressive at times. Since Vegas plays with speed, it is expected they take a few aggressive penalties. If they are not able to tone down the penalties, then their penalty kill will be put to the test.