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

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