McGuinness: Previewing Round 3 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Andrew McGuinness | Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Twenty-four teams divided by six weeks equals just four clubs remaining in the competition for the ultimate prize. Four more saw their Stanley Cup dreams come to an end in the second round, a two-week span full of almost-blown 3-1 series leads and heroic goaltending. With so few teams left, the Toronto bubble is rendered obsolete and the remainder of the playoffs will take place in Edmonton. The final four should be as interesting as ever, featuring two teams that haven’t been here in decades and two that did in 2018. Someone will have to prevail to earn the right to represent their conference on hockey’s biggest stage. Who’s it gonna be?
Eastern Conference Final: No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6) vs. No. 7 New York Islanders (35-23-10)
The road here: Tampa Bay has been consistently great since returning. Their 2-1-0 record in the round-robin earned them the second seed in the East. It took five overtimes to win their first game of the playoffs, but they’ve been riding ever high since. They beat the team that knocked them out last year (Columbus) and President’s Trophy-winning Boston in five.
Meanwhile, the Islanders had to earn their way into the playoffs, but did so with little resistance, handling the Panthers 3-1 in the qualifier. They shut down the Capitals, their head coach’s former team, with a convincing five-game series win. Like Tampa, they also took a 3-1 series lead in Round 2, but bad puck luck in consecutive overtime games took them to a Game 7, where they convincingly thrashed the No. 1 seed Flyers 4-0.
Tampa Bay wins because: They’re the best team left standing. Tampa Bay has been all around the Cup in the last half-decade, reaching the Finals in 2015 and Conference Finals in 2016 and 2018, but always coming up just short. This year feels different, in part based on how well they’ve been playing, but also because of how they’ve been playing. The Lightning aren’t just relying on speed and skill like years past –– they’re a physical, well-rounded team built for the playoffs. No one can match Tampa’s mix of star power and depth on paper.
New York wins because: If there’s anyone that can stop star power, it’s the Islanders. New York plays one of the best defensive games in the sport with an unbreakable defensive structure which is being supplemented by a white-hot offense that shows no signs of slowing down. There isn’t a true superstar outside of 2018 rookie of the year Mat Barzal, but the Islanders’ incredible chemistry and discipline makes up for that. They thrive on opponents’ mistakes, and if the Bolts try to get flashy for even a second, the Islanders’ deadly counter-attack will be ready to pounce.
Players to watch
TB: Brayden Point. With Tampa’s captain and first-line center Steven Stamkos out for the first two rounds and this series with an injury, Point has stepped up. Already an elite player, Point added clutchness to his resume with two overtime winners in Round 1 and eight points in five Round 2 games.
NYI: Jordan Eberle was all over the ice against the Flyers, yet somehow finished the series without a goal (though he did register six assists). He’s due for a breakthrough sooner rather than later.
The Pick: The Islanders deserve a ton of credit for getting here, but after playing four overtime periods against Philadelphia in Round 2 (including a double OT loss in Game 6), I think this is where their Cinderella run comes to an end. Lightning in five.
Western Conference Final: No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8) vs. No. 3 Dallas Stars (37-24-8)
The road here: Both teams finished top four in the West during the regular season, bypassing to the round-robin. Vegas came out of the gates on fire, sweeping the best of the West to claim the top seed. Chicago offered little resistance in Round 1 as the Knights prevailed in five. It looked like they were on their way to a similar result against the Canucks in Round 2, but rookie goalie Thatcher Demko’s 98 straight saves nearly did them in. Vegas lost Games 5 and 6 despite dominating play before breaking through just before the clock struck midnight in Game 7.
On the other hand, it took the Stars a while to get going, finishing the round robin 1-2-0 and looking uninspiring. They fell behind No. 8 Calgary 2-1 in the first round and nearly lost Game 4, tying it in the final 20 seconds of the third before winning in overtime. Since then, the Stars have been a machine. One of the weakest offensive teams in the regular season has suddenly become a scoring juggernaut; only the Islanders, Oilers and Avalanche –– the team Dallas beat in Round 2 –– have scored more goals per game in the bubble.
Vegas wins because: Fortune favors the bold, and the Golden Knights have consistently upgraded since a surprise run to the 2018 Finals in their inaugural season. Since then, the Golden Knights have added 30-goal scorer Max Pacioretty, 2019 Selke (best defensive forward award) finalist Mark Stone and 2019 Vezina (best goalie award) finalist Robin Lehner, among others. The Golden Knights have absolutely dominated lately, outshooting Vancouver 273-169 in Round 2.
Dallas wins because: They can win in a variety of ways. The Stars finished top four in the West this season because of their amazing defense and outstanding goaltending, which had the second-best save percentage in the league. However, with starter Ben Bishop unfit to play, it’s been their offense stepping up. The Stars have scored four-plus goals in 61.5% of their playoff games; they did so in just 29% of their regular-season contests.
Players to watch
VGK: Mark Stone isn’t just the best player on the Knights, he’s one of the best players in the league. An elite two-way forward capable of stripping the puck from anyone and taking it the other way for a goal, the Stars will have a tough time keeping Stone (15 points in 15 playoff games) in check.
DAL: Joel Kiviranta had just two points in his first thirteen career games. In his fourteenth, Game 7 against Colorado, he scored three goals, including the OT winner. The undrafted forward is the latest hero to emerge out of nowhere in the playoffs –– the question is, can he keep it up?
The Pick: Between nearly choking against the Canucks and a goalie controversy stirred up by social media, something feels off with the Knights. I always thought if Dallas could get past the Avs in Round 2, there would be no way I wouldn’t pick them in the WCF. Even against Vegas, that holds true. Stars in six.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.