2021 NHL Conference Finals Predictions

What a wonderful round of playoff hockey. The remaining four teams now play outside of their divisions this postseason. All of them can play physical lock-down defense, score at pivotal times and have top-tier coaching. It was determined after the third games of last round the winners of the central and eastern divisions would play in the eastern conference finals and the winners of the western and northern divisions for the western conference. Without further delay, here are the picks on who advances to the Stanley Cup finals.

#2 Vegas Golden Knights v. #4 Montreal Canadiens

There couldn’t be more polar teams. Vegas remained a top five team all year. A deep roster with fantastic coaching, the Golden Knights are four games away from advancing to the second Stanley Cup finals in franchise history. Montreal’s general manager Marc Bergevin added depth this offseason, taking in whoever could fit better and score more than last year’s roster. Dominic Ducharme became the coach after the firing of Claude Julien and the Canadiens remained good enough to be a top four seed in the offense heavy Scotia north.

Vegas is on a roll. The Golden Knights beat two teams they didn’t have winning records against in dramatic fashion. Former Canadien Max Pacioretty’s had a point in all seven games he’s played. Like last year’s champion Lightning, Vegas boasts three elite layers of defensemen, a Vezina finalist/one of two top Conn Smythe nominees, and at least four lines of forwards and centers that wear teams down. The Golden Knights shut down the best offense in the NHL, shut down the top rookie, and offensively beat down two of the best defenses in the league.

Vegas’ Reilly Smith and the rest of the “Misfit line” (Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson) are scoring at the same pace they did in the Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup finals run their first year in the league.

If Montreal has a shot at winning this series, coach Ducharme has to play his team to the style Vegas plays. There’s a strong argument the Canadiens’ top three layers of defensemen are on the same level as Vegas’, and Carey Price looked as good if not better than Marc-Andre Fleury during Montreal’s seven game winning streak. There are four solid forward and center lines that contribute to scoring, dominance in the offensive zone and penalty killing.

Pivotal Matchup: Peter DeBoer’s line changes v. Dominic Ducharme’s easing younger players into the series

Both teams have the right players. It’s the coaching that determines how they’ll be used and who has the upper-hand consistently. DeBoer faces questions on elevating his second line since they’ve scored and played better than the first or having the fourth line be moved higher because of the physical style of play used. The same goes for Ducharme on considering when to play his top line without breaking them up and how often should rookies such as Cole Caufield play this series. Even if one coach makes the right adjustment, the other can find an answer the following period.

Coach Dominic Ducharme has to use every tactic possible to steal a series against the Golden Knights since his team is facing an uphill battle on offense.

Verdict: Both teams play exceptional on defense. The biggest mismatch is the scoring ability of Vegas’ forwards and centers compared to Montreal’s. Brendan Gallagher for example is a solid two-way forward. He’s a pest at the front of the net and blocks shots without being told to. However he isn’t on the same level Golden Knight’s forward Mark Stone is. Vegas’ players are in their prime, are well-rounded and can shift to any style of play, finding more ways to exploit the Canadiens.

Prediction: Vegas wins series 4-0

#3 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #4 New York Islanders

Hockey fans and analysts are in for part two of a special series many watched in last year’s playoff bubble. The reigning champs and the best underdogs in the last three years go at it again in what is a coaching contest of the ages. Barry Trotz’s press conferences alone drew the ire of the Boston Bruins and un-did Bruce Cassidy’s temper after game four. Tampa’s Jon Cooper is leagues ahead of Cassidy, creatively keeping his players ahead but wary the Lightning would again face the Islanders’ suffocating defense.

New York doesn’t have captain Anders Lee, but Lou Amoriello’s trades for Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri paid off last round. Both scored and lead the offense to three commanding wins after the Bruins took a 2-1 series advantage. Mathew Barzal scored at critical times and the best fourth line in hockey scored in two of the last three games. Coach Trotz emphasizes defense but his team can play physical and commanding offense when they need to score or close a game.

Mathew Barzal punked Boston despite their defensemen hitting him the last four games. It’ll take Tampa’s best to shut him down all series.

Coach Cooper and the Lightning have to be relieved they’re out of the Central division, downing two of the league’s best teams in six games or less. Tampa’s fourth and fifth lines propelled them past Carolina, a sign that every forward and center should be defended carefully. If the postseason ended, Nikita Kucherov would be the other of two Conn Smythe finalists. Forget the number of points tallied, he’s the reason Tampa has the best power-play in the playoffs and why even the best goalies are on edge when the puck is on his stick.

Pivotal matchup: the whole Islanders offense v. the Lightning defense

Unlike the Boston Bruins, there’s no shortage of elite defenders for Tampa. General manager Julien BriseBois knew his team needed an additional defenseman for depth in the playoffs and traded for David Savard. Norris trophy (best defenseman award) candidate Victor Hedman’s rested more with two more lines holding leads, a recipe for more playoff runs. Jan Rutta, Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev, Luke Schenn and Cal Foote round out a defensive unit that can counter most offenses.

The Islanders though, aren’t like most offenses. The importance of Mathew Barzal showing up in the most important games puts more pressure for Tampa to finish a series early. Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck cause havoc by hitting teams’ first two lines to rattle them early. This eases the Islander stars to play their best offense. Jordan Eberle, Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Brock Nelson, and the former Devils Zajac and Palmieri put pressure on defenses to play perfect. Vezina nominated goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy needs to play his best hockey of the playoffs if Tampa wants a chance at repeat championships.

The acquisition of David Savard comes into play against an Islanders team that has the top scoring offense in the NHL playoffs.

Verdict: Defensemen depth determines who wins. New York doesn’t have three stout lines the way Tampa does. Noah Dobson, Andy Greene and Braydon Coburn may crater to Tampa’s third line of Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman the longer the series goes. Hockey lovers should enjoy a repeat bid for one of the best rosters assembled in the 21st century and bid farewell to New York’s Nassau Colosseum.

Prediction: Tampa Bay wins series 4-1

Stanley Cup second round record: 1-3

2021 NBA Western Conference Second Round Playoff Picks

What an exciting first round of basketball! Each team that advanced showed they were the better team in every aspect. Only the Utah Jazz finished their series in five games or less. The Los Angeles Clippers were the only team to extend a series to seven games and win one home game. Two teams in the remaining series will advance to play in the conference finals, so it’s time to decide which two have the best chance of advancing.

#1 Utah Jazz v. #4 Los Angeles Clippers

Two heavy-weights in the west square off in a series that defines which team moves forward after the season. If the Clippers lose, does star Kawhi Leonard opt out of his contract or does he help recruit more talent to a roster needing some depth at guard? Will the Jazz and coach Quinn Snyder adapt and take the next step towards a championship? These are the questions that mediums will ask and try to answer on their own when the series loser is determined.

Utah made quick work of a feisty and inexperienced Memphis team, a better outcome than if they played Golden State. Utah’s top five ranked defense frustrated Ja Morant and company, but it’s doubtful they can stop proven veterans Rajon Rondo and Kawhi Leonard in a close game. The guard matchup will be fun with Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley taking on Paul George and Reggie Jackson.

Donovan Mitchell is the better guard v. Paul George and has less pressure to reach the conference finals than George.

Los Angeles’ forwards could determine the series with Marcus Morris, Nick Batum and Kawhi Leonard overpowering Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic. Both Ingles and Bogdanovic are great defensively, but trying to score against the Clippers’ stars will be difficult since their three play like a complete unit.

Verdict: This won’t be a short series, and that plays to coach Ty Lue’s favor since he’s 4-0 in game seven’s. Barring serious injuries, Los Angeles should advance to their first conference finals game in franchise history.

Prediction: Los Angeles wins series 4-2

#2 Phoenix Suns v. #3 Denver Nuggets

Both teams knocked out first round opponents who had a shot at the championship. Phoenix dispatched last year’s champion Los Angeles Lakers, due to injuries Anthony Davis suffered. Denver took advantage of a Portland Trailblazers team that scored only 14 points in their last game. Whoever wins this series is a favorite to represent the western conference in the finals because of coaching and quality veteran players who lead both on and off the court.

Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. had themselves a great end to their first round series, averaging 63 points their last two games. Coach Michael Malone used every asset as his disposal since the season-ending injury to Jamal Murray’s left knee. Forwards Aaron Gordon, JaMychal Green and guards Monte Morris and Austin Rivers are additional help on the three point line and initiating a passing game where Jokic can take control inside the paint.

Jae Crowder is Phoenix’s X-factor if they have a chance of reaching the conference finals. He has to play as good if not better than Denver’s Aaron Gordon.

Suns coach Monty Williams re-shaped Phoenix’s roster and poise in big moments. Veteran Chris Paul came in not just to implement Williams’ style, but for leadership and a starting role. The Suns have one of the best guard duos in the west, with Paul running point and Devin Booker as their top shooter. Forwards Mikal Bridges and Torrey Craig have to step up against Denver’s forward tandem of Green and Porter Jr. The most pressure is on Jae Crowder to nullify Aaron Gordon. If Crowder, an eight year veteran, can smother Gordon most of the series, Phoenix can make the conference finals.

Verdict: The Nuggets are deemed a favorite because of Jokic’s MVP-caliber season. Denver’s problem is they don’t have the right guards to stop either Devin Booker or Chris Paul. Facundo Campazzo doesn’t stand a chance against one of the best point-guards to play professional basketball, and Booker is leagues ahead of Austin Rivers and Monte Morris. Phoenix’s forwards stand a better chance since that’s the help Jokic will need. Williams is the better coach and has a balanced roster that buys in.

Prediction: Phoenix wins series 4-3

2021 NBA Eastern Conference Second Round Playoff Picks

What a fun and dominant first round of basketball!! All four teams that advanced made quick work of who they played, intent on wanting rest and how to approach their opponent in the second round. Only two teams will advance to play in the conference finals, so it’s time to decide which two have the best chance of meeting in the eastern finals.

#2 Brooklyn Nets v. #3 Milwaukee Bucks

Reigning MVP of the past two years Giannis Antetokounmpo (white) spearheads a Bucks offense against a Nets defense that’s improved the past two months.

Two of the NBA’s best teams face off in must-see television. The trios of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday versus Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving headline the best series in the second round in either conference. There’s so much talent, a number of stars could break through and make this a series to remember.

Brooklyn took care of business despite headlines about fans in Boston’s TD Garden. Their team chemistry is much better than most fans and analysts expected even two months before playoffs. They pass well and are playing their best team defense of the year. If their trio of Durant, Harden and Irving can average 103 points a game against the Bucks, they’ll be favorites for the eastern finals.

Milwaukee was the first team to finish the first round, and gained both rest and more film on how to attack Brooklyn’s defense. Both Holiday and center Brook Lopez are solid defenders who can keep James Harden and Blake Griffin quiet. Holiday and Lopez were a big reason Miami’s offense struggled all four games.

For Milwaukee to win the series, they can’t let elite scorers such as James Harden (black jersey) easily score.

Series X-Factor: Depth will be critical, and it favors the Bucks. Nick Claxton and Jeff Green are good players that help the Nets score off the bench. However the Bucks’ depth of Bobby Portis, P.J. Tucker, and Jeff Teague bring enough scoring and defensive presence to tip the scales.

Prediction: Milwaukee wins series 4-2

#1 Philadelphia 76ers v. #5 Atlanta Hawks

Both teams impressed the first round. Philadelphia took Washington seriously, dropping one game because of star Joel Embiid’s early injury in game five. Atlanta took advantage of every defensive mistake the New York Knicks had and played shut-down defense in every game. The winner of this series will be an underdog in the eastern conference finals, but should give their opponent fits.

Philadelphia’s Seth Curry shoots over Bradley Beal in last round’s series against the Wizards. With Embiid’s health questionable, the main scorers on offense come down to Curry and Tobias Harris.

This series comes down to the seriousness of Embiid’s right knee injury. If his knee requires more time to heal or some kind of surgery, the 76ers may lose to an Atlanta team playing their best basketball of the season. If Embiid is around 75% healthy, this could be a seven game series. Philadelphia needs strong offensive performances from Seth Curry, Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons if Embiid is out more than two games.

Atlanta’s star Trae Young will face double-teams against this defense. Center Clint Capela and forwards John Collins and De’Andre Hunter have to contribute more scoring. Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari provide offense off the bench and help the Hawks keep games close, but their forwards and centers are critical for wins.

Prediction: Philadelphia wins series 4-2

Eastern conference first round series record: 2-2

NHL 2021 Second Round Playoff Picks Part Two

Those were great first-round playoff series we watched the past few weeks. The best teams showed depth, determination and who can win in overtime. This will be the last of the division play-ins before the conference finals. Without further delay, it’s time to decide which team in Canada has the best chance of advancing.

North Division

#3 Winnipeg Jets v. #4 Montreal Canadiens

The last two teams in Canada play for a trip to the conference finals. Whoever wins, it’ll affect who faces off in the east or west on the U.S. side.

Coach Paul Maurice may have the last laugh with his coaching. The Jets are playing their best at the right time.

Winnipeg doesn’t just have Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers back since their last series, they’re more rested and have a better idea on how to attack a Montreal defense that wasn’t tested their last three games. Centers Mark Scheifele, Paul Stastny and Adam Lowry create plays, either scoring in critical situations or extending plays late in periods. Connor Hellebuyck’s played like the Vezina winning goaltender he was last year, with added help from defensemen by Dylan DeMelo and Neil Pionk.

Montreal’s goaltender Carey Price is this postseason’s most valuable player. He rallied the Canadiens back from a 3-1 deficit against a layered Toronto Maple Leafs squad and advanced to the second round. Six goals were scored in the last three games against Price. On offense, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Corey Perry, Joel Armia and Tyler Toffoli are the playmakers who stepped up and scored when Montreal needed it most. Toffoli, Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki have to keep their three game performances going against a Jet defense that’s shut down stellar division offenses.

This series has a gap in coaching. Jets coach Paul Maurice fleeced fans and analysts, shutting down two former Art Ross trophy winners with a stout and bright-minded fourth line. The tactic accomplished a first round sweep. Montreal’s Dominic Ducharme has done a great job pushing the Canadiens to a new level, but Maurice and veterans Blake Wheeler, Scheifele, Stastny, Lowry and Ehlers have been to a conference finals before. They’re in a better position to battle a western opponent such as Vegas or Colorado than Montreal is against a team such as Tampa Bay or Boston.

Prediction: Winnipeg wins series 4-1

North Division first round picks: 1-1