2021 NHL Playoffs: B/R Staff Stanley Cup Semifinals Predictions
We're down to four teams as the defending champion Lightning, Islanders, Canadiens and Golden Knights vie for the richest prize in professional hockey.
Tampa and Vegas were two of the early-season favorites expected to be here, the Isles and Habs less so.
Will the Islanders' vaunted defensive system stifle the Lightning's high-powered scoring threat? Can franchise goalie Carey Price lead the Canadiens over the Golden Knights and give Canada its first Stanley Cup winner since 1993?
Our team of B/R NHL writers breakdown both series and provide predictions on who's headed to the Stanley Cup Final this year.
Don't agree with our experts? Be sure to provide your comments below and give your take on who's you think is going to the final!
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Montreal Canadiens
It's the first-ever postseason series between these two clubs. The Golden Knights advanced to the semis by defeating the Minnesota Wild in seven games and the Colorado Avalanche in six. The Canadiens, meanwhile, got this far by upsetting the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games and sweeping the Winnipeg Jets.
The Golden Knights possess a deep, talented roster. They have Vezina Trophy finalist and three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury as their backstop. Alex Pietrangelo anchors their defensive corps, which also features Alec Martinez and Shea Theodore. The forward lines feature stars Selke Trophy finalist Mark Stone and experienced scorers Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith.
Goaltender Price has been the hero for the underdog Canadiens. Their roster features promising young forwards Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield, as well as grizzled veterans like forwards Corey Perry and Eric Staal and defenseman Shea Weber. Tyler Toffoli, their regular-season scoring leader, overcame a slow start and is now their leading scorer in this postseason.
With a 3.08 goals per game average, Vegas has the offensive advantage over Montreal's 2.55. However, the Canadiens' 2.18 goals-against per game is slightly better than the Golden Knights' 2.38.
On special teams, the Canadiens possess a playoff-leading penalty-killing percentage of 90.3 and also have the advantage in power-play percentage (18.8 to 14.3). Both teams play a physical style but Vegas leads all clubs with 513 hits and 249 blocked shots.
On paper, the Golden Knights' depth makes them the clear favorites. However, the Canadiens have proven they cannot be underestimated. This could be a closely contested series. As long as they don't take the Habs lightly, the Golden Knights should prevail
Prediction: Golden Knights in six.
A Western Conference Las Vegas team and the Eastern Conference Montreal Canadiens facing off in the semifinals would require a lot of explaining five years ago. In the chaos of 2021, it's almost appropriate.
To be the best, you have to beat the best, and no team was better than the Colorado Avalanche in 2020-21. Down a goal in Game 3 and in danger of falling to a 3-0 deficit, Vegas turned on the jets and stunned the Avs with a comeback and then four straight wins. Nathan MacKinnon was rendered invisible and Colorado's defense, arguably its biggest strength, crumbled under attacks by all four Vegas lines.
Stone, Marchessault and Pietrangelo have played very well so far. The difference against Colorado, however, was arguably its depth. Nicolas Roy, William Carrier and Keegan Kolesar don't put up crazy point totals, but they are major possession drivers for Vegas in the bottom six. Zac Whitecloud and Nick Holden is a dream third pairing for suppressing opposing offenses, while Martinez has refound his Los Angeles-era playoff form.
Montreal has found itself four wins away from the Stanley Cup Final against all odds. Heavy underdogs against the Leafs, the Canadiens pulled a stunning comeback to win three straight and move on to the Jets, whom they absolutely demolished in a four-game sweep.
Price tops the list of reasons why. It's hard to deny that Price seems to get locked in when the games matter more. Per Evolving Hockey, he has let in 5.35 fewer goals than expected this postseason.
Suzuki is having a breakout postseason with four goals and four assists in 11 games. Kotkaniemi, who has been inconsistent early into his NHL career, is riding a high with four playoff goals. Perry has turned back the clock with three of his own.
Vegas is the heavy favorite here. It's a team with talent, depth and confidence. If Price continues his form, then there's always a chance for him to steal the series for Montreal. Otherwise, Vegas will likely find itself in its second Stanley Cup Final appearance since entering the league in 2017-18.
Prediction: Vegas in five.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Islanders
This semifinal matchup is shaping up to be a battle of two power plays. The Tampa Bay Lightning enter the final four with the highest power-play conversion rate of any team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (41.7 percent). The New York Islanders have the second-best rate of the teams left at 28.1 percent.
Though the Edmonton Oilers had the league's best power play this regular season, it feels like the Lightning have been in that conversation for the last decade. It's a star-laden unit that gets goalies moving laterally and has some big blueliners who can launch heavy point shots to create plays.
But the thing about the Islanders is they don't take a lot of penalties. Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy will tell you all about the team refs view as the "New York Saints." Staying out of the box is key for any team against Tampa Bay, but it's not difficult for a disciplined Barry Trotz-coached team.
I've written it before on this site and for others, but it bears repeating as the Isles head into a crucial series: The system is the star.
Sure, they have Mathew Barzal. And they have Kyle Palmieri, who leads the team with seven postseason goals, along with savvy veteran forward Travis Zajac.
But it's more about how the players execute the system. They wear teams down, bait them into bad penalties and strike when they're gassed.
When it comes to goaltending, the Lightning boast Vezina finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy. Expect him to play every minute of each game. The Islanders have a talented Russian tandem in Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin. Trotz doesn't like to show his hand when it comes to their usage, but he's not afraid to juggle the two.
These two heavyweights faced off in the Eastern Conference Final last season and Tampa Bay won out before going on to claim the Cup. It's tough to bet against the Islanders right now because of how they've performed, but the Lightning are loaded and ready for a repeat bid.
Prediction: Lightning in six.
Islanders versus Lightning for a chance at the Stanley Cup
Sounds a little familiar, no?
It was an unexpected matchup last season and is only slightly less so in the sequel, with Tampa Bay having finished third in the Central Division and New York fourth in the East.
Getting Nikita Kucherov—34 points in 25 games in the 2019-20 postseason—back for these playoffs was an almost unfair boost for the Lightning after he had missed the entire regular season.
And he has picked up where he left off last summer with five goals and 13 assists in 11 early-round games against Florida and Carolina.
He melds into an absurdly talented lineup including seven players with double-digit regular-season goals, the third-leading point-getter among NHL defensemen and the league's winningest goaltender.
It's a daunting task again for the Islanders, who upset the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in six before polishing off the No. 3 Boston Bruins in another six-gamer in Round 2.
Out of character for a Trotz lineup, New York has featured a prodigious offense in these playoffs, scoring more goals per game (3.58) than any team but the Colorado Avalanche.
The typically stingy style remains, though, placing the team second in the league behind only the Vegas Golden Knights in goals allowed per playoff game (2.23).
Trade-deadline acquisition Palmieri leads the Islanders with seven goals and Jean-Gabriel Pageau has a team-high 13 points, while goalies Varlamov and Sorokin have split the load in the net, with the former making seven starts to the latter's five.
Incidentally, the Lightning are ninth in goals per game and fifth in goals allowed.
But Tampa Bay isn't Pittsburgh or Boston.
Numbers or not, the champs are loaded at all levels and, more importantly, they know the routine. The Lightning have saved their best hockey for the most important stretch, and it's awfully hard to see them losing more than once or twice.
Prediction: Lightning in 6