Can the Tampa Bay Lightning Three-peat?

Lightning coach Jon Cooper celebrates with his team after winning back-to-back Stanley Cup championships

In early July, the Tampa Bay Lightning accomplished something only one team this century and eight NHL teams had: they repeated as Stanley Cup Champions. When the play clock reached four zeros and players started celebrating, the other 30 teams were both relieved and excited. Relief over the season finally reaching the end and excitement for who could be poached from the champion’s roster.

The 2020-21 champions had a roster of unparalleled depth top to bottom most hockey fans hadn’t seen since the Detroit Red Wings of two to three decades ago. The salary cap didn’t increase, and it lead to cap casualties before the expansion draft. The roster celebrated their accomplishment and partied hard, yet not even a week and a half passed when general manager Julien BriseBois traded the rights of Barclay Goodrow to the New York Rangers. Then the draft came.

Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Blake Coleman and Luke Schenn were either drafted, signed or traded to different teams. Their famed third line was gone less than 12 hours into free agency. However Tampa did retain some of the depth, finding enough money to re-sign Cal Foote, Ross Colton and Alex Barre-Boulet.

In free agency, the Lightning brought back Zach Bogosian and added fresh faces in Corey Perry, Brian Elliott and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Perry and Bellemare are to replenish and fill space on the third line. The Elliott signing ensures depth and veteran presence when starter Andrei Vasilevskiy needs rest in the regular season. The debate among hockey analysts and fans after these signings are the chances Tampa Bay has to win a third straight title, something last decade’s Penguins team failed to do.

Former Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian returns to the current champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The added depth on defense helps whoever’s in net.

Last article, the Florida Panthers stood out as a team rapidly becoming a Stanley Cup contender. Tampa’s additions of Bellemare and Perry fit because they can both score and play physically. They’re third or fourth line players. The retained depth ensures Barre-Boulet or Colton is promoted as the last of the three line-mates. Foote, Barre-Boulet/Colton and Mathieu Joseph round out the fourth line. Additional depth will come from minor leaguers having a chance to prove themselves.

Defense and goaltender won’t be an issue, but depth offensively could be if injuries arrive early season. The Lightning and Panthers are solid playoff candidates. Toronto is still on the rise and the Boston Bruins haven’t shown decline. The Metropolitan will be tight with both the Rangers and Islanders being favorites and the Capitals and Penguins reliable in their playoff trips. Tampa has to be in the top four of the Atlantic for a favorable playoff spot.

They’ll face everyone’s best starting with Pittsburgh on October 12th. If they cruise into the playoffs around the number five seed (minimum), their state rivals and New York’s metropolitan teams could be the serious bets to send them home without a parade.

While he isn’t known for scoring 20+ goals a season, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is needed veteran depth and could be a solid third line contributor. He’ll be tested early on by a lot of Tampa’s division rivals.

Until the Rangers show they’re the real deal, and the Islanders and Panthers win definitively over the Lightning in a playoff series, this team is the sure bet to win three in a row and begin the first dynasty of the 21st century.

Jdsportscorner.wordpress.com is Bringing Back Polls!

As the Olympics concluded August 8th, there were performances we’ll see as memorable and historic. Well, now you can vote for which ones you liked most! The 2021 Tokyo Olympics poll is up! Who would you say were your most memorable or favorite gold-medal performances?

Anyone who’s read from here or followed Pro Talk’s facebook page before the decade knows polls like this help this page and are a part of my work since I’ve started this from the ground up. A lot of you have been wanting me to do a poll for a long time, and now the chance is here.

Please read the instructions for this fun event. If you have questions, feel free to ask in the comments below. The three populous votes will be featured in a September article on site, and Pro Talk’s Wesley Woods and yours truly will write out our three best separately.

RULES TO FOLLOW

– Vote for three and three only (more than three nullifies your full vote)

– Don’t vote on more than one account (votes on two accounts of one person will be nullified)

– Only those who won at least one gold medal qualify for votes. Do not add someone who took silver/bronze only. That vote won’t count, however, if you think of a different name/team that did win gold and that performance stood out, you’re free to add it to the list of options.

The link for the poll is below

https://strawpoll.com/wxjyqbfb2/r

The Next Big Rivalry: What to Make of the Florida Panthers

(From left to right) MacKenzie Weegar, Noel Acciari and Jonathan Huberdeau celebrate a goal. While Huberdeau is a first line scorer, both Weegar and Acciari have thrived in depth and defensive roles.

The Tampa Bay Lightning repeated as Stanley Cup Champions in Amalie Arena with a cheering, sold-out crowd. Andrei Vasilevskiy was named most valuable player in the playoffs. Nikita Kucherov was intoxicated ten minutes after hoisting the trophy on ice. As much as it pains some folks to admit, Montreal wasn’t the toughest team the Lightning faced in the playoffs. Fans and analysts alike wondered, talked on and shared views on who they thought gave the back-to-back champions their hardest fight.

Keith Jones opened up the topic post-game saying Florida was by far Tampa’s toughest series. He wasn’t alone in this thinking.

Analysts Bill Lindsay and Mark Parrish agreed. Lindsay discussed Florida’s offensive pressure (minus game six) giving Vasilevskiy trouble and engaging the Lightning in multiple fights early to stay edgy. Parrish gave credit to coach Joel Quenneville for offensive growth and capitalizing on Vasilevskiy’s one-on-one weaknesses.

The New York Islanders were close to reaching the finals and would have if Tampa wasn’t in the playoffs. Outside of them, the Florida Panthers are a top pick to reach and even win the cup finals in the next year or two. The offense is top five and they’ve accumulated some of the best coaching in the league.

After Quenneville’s first season, Bill Zito was hired as general manager to build a roster needing better defense. Adding Radko Gudas, Brandon Montour and Gustav Forsling were good starts. Zito added depth as physical and gritty as Tampa’s third and fourth line, signing Patric Hornqvist, Ryan Lomberg, Anthony Duclair and Mason Marchmant.

Florida’s Ryan Lomberg emerged as a possible star and pest when he fought most of Tampa’s roster this postseason, including the hard-hitting, former captain Ryan McDonagh.

Goaltending is a weak-spot, but it’s possible Zito’s found solutions. Before the pandemic, Sam Montembeault played like a draft steal with starter Sergei Bobrovsky faltering. While Chris Driedger was drafted by the expansion Seattle Kraken, Spencer Knight could compete for the starting spot. He’s the first goaltender born in the 21st century to win a regular and postseason game. His intensified focus in elimination games makes him play better.

The Panthers are mirroring the process Tampa Bay uses. A deep, offensively gifted roster, a physical and passionate third and fourth line and added depth on defense. Both teams are relocated back in the Atlantic division and face pressure to get back into the playoffs within a stacked eastern conference.

This figures to be what the Battle of Alberta was since both teams are two of the best in the league. Florida has ways to go before they can topple the Lightning, yet there are ways to accomplish this.

  • Better special teams: The biggest areas of improvement. Main talk centered on goaltending before Spencer Knight got the go in the playoffs, and Montembeault can further develop with Driedger gone. Fixing the penalty kill is a need. The lethal combination of Steven Stamkos on one end and a healthy Nikita Kucherov on the other overwhelmed the Panthers early and often. The absence of Aaron Ekblad is one reason, but the d-core of Weegar, Montour and Forsling need to step up (especially the latter two since they’re on a playoff team). On the other end, the power play for the Panthers was average at best in the regular season and held the team back in the playoffs. Florida’s power play numbers were abysmal going one-for-eight, zero-for-four, two-for-three, two-of-13, one-of-seven and zero-for-two in six games. Outside of the third game, that’s terrible for a team that’s top five in the league on offense. The power play is where Florida should excel when at least an extra man is on ice, not hurting them the longer a series goes.
  • Defense from star players: It’s something all teams go through with star players. How bad do Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Frank Vatrano want to get past the Lightning and win a championship? This is what made Nikita Kucherov, the best player after winning league MVP in the 2018-19 season and Steven Stamkos, after scoring 50+ goals in three seasons evolve. The extra edge while keeping games high scoring is a step closer to getting past the defending champs.
One thing Florida must improve on are better fights earlier in games versus their state rival. It sets a different tone than wanting to fight at the end of games.
  • Better timed and consistent fighting: The first two games of the series were some of the best games in the first round and brought back memories of old-school hockey. The league doesn’t have a lot of that right now and the Panthers can use that as the winning formula moving forward. Game one resulted in four lead changes, four power play goals, 17 minor penalties, 34 penalty minutes, 79 shots on goal and one suspension. Florida won game five as a response from game four’s one-sided score, but that game four is a good contrast from game one. The fighting, penalties and even Anthony Duclair’s slash on Kucherov went too far and weren’t centered on competition. Playing more physical from game one when the series is even means more than dirty play trailing by four.
  • Staying reliable on offense: Florida’s offense was up and down the six game series. Usually a team consistently scoring an average of three or four goals a game, 14 of the 17 goals were scored in three games. They won two of those three. When they scored two or under, they lost the remaining three. Granted, Andrei Vasilevskiy wound up continuing his undefeated streak after losing one game (a major reason he won the playoff MVP trophy). The Panther offense had one game where they had under 30 shots at the net. Not every goal will be easy or clean to score, but they should feel good knowing there’s continued growth and consistency on offense to make them a true threat.

Everyone will look at the Islanders, New York Rangers and the Carolina Hurricanes as top teams to de-throne Tampa and make the cup finals. Those teams need to take Florida just as serious if not more since coach Quenneville’s team has yet to hit its peak.

Quarterback D’Eriq King becomes the first college athlete to sign a NIL deal with a pro sports team, choosing the Florida Panthers. The team is gaining popularity, something they haven’t had since the mid-1990s. Improved play and a rivalry with Tampa Bay should continue that trend.

2021 NBA Finals Prediction

After a longer than usual postseason, the best two teams advanced to the finals. Both teams deserve to play after what they’ve gone through with injuries and games played. To have two teams that haven’t been to the NBA Finals in at least two decades is special and should be appreciated. While it is sad one team has to come out victorious, the winner will be remembered for years, if not decades to come. Time to break down who finally takes the Larry O’Brien trophy home.

#2 Phoenix Suns v. #3 Milwaukee Bucks

Before June 30th, the Suns’ best season came in Charles Barkley’s MVP season in 1993. The first of the big four pro-sports teams in Phoenix, Monty Williams and Chris Paul did everything to get to the finals, including two series-winning games in Los Angeles’ Staples Center. Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Jae Crowder are playing the best basketball in their careers. The Suns’ success stems from passing the ball well, leading opposing defenses to break down before charging into the paint or shooting from long to mid-range.

Brook Lopez was a menace in the Eastern Conference Finals versus Atlanta. If Suns center DeAndre Ayton struggles against him, Milwaukee could take home their second Larry O’Brien trophy.

Giannis Antetokounmpo may not start the series but that doesn’t mean Milwaukee’s guard tandem of Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton can’t lock down the Suns’ Devin Booker and Chris Paul. Brook Lopez is playing some of his best basketball since his old days in Brooklyn. If he plays against DeAndre Ayton like he did against the Hawks last round, Phoenix may have some issues they can’t patch up.

Pivotal matchup: Monty Williams v. Mike Budenholzer

If it wasn’t for Coach Williams, the Suns wouldn’t be in the NBA Finals. Even without Chris Paul on the court, dating back to last season in playoff (or play-in) games, Phoenix is undefeated with Williams on the bench. His second coaching stint has revealed how much he’s learned being an assistant, and that’s translated on the court. Meanwhile Mike Budenholzer has made the necessary adjustments that eluded him in past series and seasons, allowing the Bucks to play some of their best basketball of the season when their two time MVP has been injured.

Chris Paul wasn’t the only OKC Thunder pointguard who jettisoned to Phoenix. Cameron Payne has proven to be a pivotal player who can lead and get the Suns going if Paul isn’t available or Devin Booker struggles.

The biggest issue for Milwaukee is when Giannis comes back from injury. Most fans wouldn’t think that to be true, but the Bucks would have to juggle their lineups at least three games in a series where the chemistry could be at its best. Monty Williams has shown he can adjust a lineup and make sure a team like the Suns play their best basketball late in a series.

Prediction: The Phoenix Suns win the series and their first NBA Championship 4-2

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

NHL 2021 Second Round Playoff Picks Part One

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 three teams in the U.S. have the best chance of advancing.

West Division

#1 Colorado Avalanche v. #2 Vegas Golden Knights

The first of two great series in the second round. Like the remaining two teams in the central division, the winner is a favorite to go to the finals and win the championship. Colorado’s in the best health possible compared to the last four years they’ve advanced to the second round, while Vegas’ Max Pacioretty is back at the best possible time.

Colorado shipped Nikita Zadorov to Chicago, acquiring Devon Toews from the New York Islanders in return. Toews was wonderful on defense in last year’s playoffs, and is a key player in shutting down the Vegas offense.

The Avalanche were gifted additional rest after sweeping the St. Louis Blues. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer needed it more than anyone since he’s started most of their games. Nathan MacKinnon and captain Gabriel Landeskog combined for eight goals and nine assists, destroying any chance St. Louis had of winning one game. After a week off, Colorado can jump on Vegas early and pick up where they left off.

The Minnesota Wild wouldn’t have fared well against the Avalanche if they advanced. Vegas is the right opponent this round. The Golden Knights defense and scoring is enough to counter and test how ready MacKinnon, Grubauer and Landeskog are for the big stage. Robin Lehner should have a few starts in this series, a move Peter DeBoer should’ve made last round against the Wild. The Avalanche are one of two teams Vegas didn’t have a winning record against this regular season.

Key matchup: Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Samuel Girard and Ryan Graves v. Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault

The league’s third best offense v. the league’s third best defense will determine who advances. While Vegas has the league’s best defense and Colorado the best offense, it’s these two that determines who advances. Makar may leave after the season because of restricted free agency, and both Girard and Graves haven’t faced many top offenses in playoff rounds in their five years in the league (combined). On the flip side, Toews played some of his best defense with Barry Trotz in New York and helped the Islanders reach the conference finals last year.

Pacioretty’s return in time before game one is the boost Vegas needs and is a main talking point. His performance in game seven against the Wild led the Knights to ringing up six against a disciplined defense. Mark Stone’s passion combined with original franchise playmakers Karlsson and Marchessault is a lot to handle. It won’t be a surprise if Vegas wins at least three games.

Jonathan Marchessault is one of the remaining Golden Knights from the franchise’s inception. Important in playoff games, Marchessault’s intelligence gives his second line an advantage most defenses can’t prepare for.

Verdict: Colorado’s week off and Vegas struggling to close out a Minnesota team that took positive steps forward plays to the Avalanche’s favor. This is the healthiest coach Jared Bednar’s team has been in years in the second round. A young team this deep can swarm a defense at will, and Vegas has to be ready early.

Prediction: Colorado wins series 4-3

Eastern Division

#3 Boston Bruins v. #4 New York Islanders

Boston and New York had a two sided series in the regular season. The Islanders were the better team in the first half, shutting down the Bruins’ dominant first line in almost every game. Boston looked much better in the second half once they acquired Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar, winning three of their final four games against New York.

Jake DeBrusk (74) and Taylor Hall (71) rejuvenated Boston’s offense in the first round against Washington. Can they keep it up against one of the best defenses in the NHL?

Better play from Boston’s second line led the third line to increase productivity. Nick Ritchie is the top scorer, but Jake DeBrusk is playing with more confidence, something the Bruins wanted heading into the playoffs. Charlie Coyle is a dependable center with playoff experience. It’s important this line has as much production as the second line. It puts more pressure on the Islanders to play better defense against more than one line.

If New York has any chance against a surging Bruins team, they’ll need to see which goaltender plays best. Coach Barry Trotz switched to Ilya Sorokin against the Penguins when he won two games to even that series. We’ll see if Sorokin or Semyon Varlamov plays better the first two games. The Islanders have better depth and it’s possible Trotz knows how to attack Boston since he’s seen their updated roster four times before the playoffs.

Live on Ice: Defensemen Ryan Pulock (6) and Adam Pelech (3) neutralize almost every star forward and center they’ve played against this year.

Boston dispatched Washington in multiple overtime games, gaining additional rest. They could start slow and New York could take advantage, hitting them early and often. Both defenses are in the NHL’s top five. The Islander offense has to score more than three goals a night against a defense that’s much better than the one they faced last round.

Prediction: Boston wins series 4-2

Central Division

#1 Carolina Hurricanes v. #3 Tampa Bay Lightning

This series defines great hockey; outstanding offense, phenomenal defense and great coaching. Somehow we knew at the beginning of the season these two teams would have a showdown to determine who would advance to the conference finals. Both Carolina and Tampa have offensive depth, great goaltending and penalty-killing defenses. The winner has a high chance of not just reaching the championship, but winning it all.

The Hurricanes may have one more shot at not just reaching the championship, but winning it. Andrei Svechnikov and Warren Foegele are restricted free agents the Seattle Kraken will target this offseason, and coach Rod Brind’Amour needs a contract extension. They will lose someone critical to their championship run in the future. One would think this motivates Carolina to push past Tampa Bay.

Jon Cooper is the longest tenured coach in the NHL with one team for good reasons. His creativity keeps Tampa competitive and dangerous.

The Lightning players get a lot of the credit for their wins, chemistry and individual play, but coach Jon Cooper deserves more credit. Tampa’s collapse in a game three against the rival Panthers angered Cooper to the point where he pushed the team to play better collectively the last two of three games. Cooper’s creativity on the power-play shattered Florida’s defense and confused the goaltenders regarding shots and passes.

Key matchup: Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce v. Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat

Tampa’s defense was the focus of last round since Florida had one of, if not the best offense in the NHL. Tampa’s defense has a similar challenge, but it’s Carolina’s defense that will be tested more. In his first game against the Hurricanes this season, Nikita Kucherov will spearhead the Lightning offense, having Point, Stamkos and Palat with him on the power-play.

Carolina’s defensive quartet bottled up Nashville’s offensive playmakers on home ice their first two games. This series depends on how Slavin, Hamilton, Skjei and Pesce contain and shut down Tampa’s top four playmakers.

Assisting on Jordan Staal’s game five winning goal, Brett Pesce is a dual threat for the Hurricanes, especially on defense.

Verdict: Surprisingly, Tampa was the first team to finish their series last round. Carolina not sweeping a scrappy Predator team could be their undoing since the Lightning had more time off.

Prediction: Tampa Bay wins series 4-1

First round U.S. series records: 4-2

2021 NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Picks

The NBA’s eastern conference made progress compared to years past. The Toronto Raptors took a plunge as most expected, but the Brooklyn Nets are the team everyone’s interested in. Philadelphia took the next step to being a complete team with coach Doc Rivers, and Atlanta looks to be a contender for years to come.

The playoffs are now upon us and that means predictions for the first round. Time to break down which teams have the best chance of advancing to the second round.

#4 New York Knicks v. #5 Atlanta Hawks

Both teams deserve praise for reaching the playoffs where many analysts and fans didn’t have either getting in. One team will be blessed to make it to the next round where they’ll have a shot at the conference finals.

The hiring of Tom Thibodeau was the best move the Knicks made since superstar Carmelo Anthony left. The acquisitions of Julius Randle, Derrick Rose and Nerlens Noel made New York a dangerous team on defense. Randle is the team’s star and likely wins the league’s Comeback Player of the Year award.

Nate McMillan was hired in the second half of the season for the Atlanta Hawks after the team blew their 17th lead of the season. Rajon Rondo was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for Lou Williams, and Atlanta rose in the standings. The incoming coaching staff and the upgraded roster made the most of these quick changes.

Atlanta’s acquisition of Lou Williams solidified their bench and scoring depth. It’s why they shot up to the fifth seed.

The only downside is both Nate McMillan and the Hawks still need better experience in the playoffs, and the Knicks have more answers to shut down Atlanta than the other way around.

Prediction: New York wins series 4-1

#3 Milwaukee Bucks v. #6 Miami Heat

Probably not the series Milwaukee wanted in the first round. Miami was built for the playoffs while the Bucks succeed best in the regular season. Coach Mike Budenholzer has to learn from his mistakes the last few years.

Jimmy Butler counters Giannis Antetokounmpo better than any player in the east. It comes down to who’s supporting cast can put better numbers up. Miami added Trevor Ariza while Milwaukee traded for Jrue Holiday and signed Bobby Portis. The rosters are as good as it gets and they’re close to even.

Last year Jimmy Butler and the Heat stifled Giannis and the Bucks. Can the trade for Jrue Holiday pay off in the first round?

Coaching determines who advances. Budenholzer is known for not adapting in the playoffs. The offense goes through Giannis, but that doesn’t mean he should drive down the middle most possessions. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra knows how to get the most out of his roster, even if long-range shooting didn’t show up in the latter half of the season.

Upset Prediction for the East: Miami wins series 4-1

#2 Brooklyn Nets v. #7 Boston Celtics

A lopsided series would be an understatement. Boston’s Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams ensure they won’t advance past the first round. Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum will take the Celtics as far as they can.

Brooklyn needs a full return for Kyrie Irving and James Harden. They haven’t played much with superstar Kevin Durant or mid-season pickup Blake Griffin, and they need chemistry in a series to make a push to the finals.

Prediction: Brooklyn wins series 4-0

#1 Philadelphia 76ers v. #8 Washington Wizards

Washington had less than a one percent chance of making the playoffs in mid-April. They made the eighth seed and have a better shot of taking out the 76ers than most analysts think. Russell Westbrook struggles in the playoffs, but he’s not the only star player. Bradley Beal makes everyone better, and the tandem combined with Scott Brooks’ better coaching is why they stand a chance.

Philadelphia’s “Crowned Prince of Chaos” had one of the best defensive seasons a second year player could have, shutting down more opponents than Rudy Gobert or teammate Ben Simmons.

Defending Joel Embiid in a seven game series is why Philadelphia is favored to win. Despite flaws in Doc Rivers’ playoff coaching, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle are a solid supporting cast to help lock down premier players or help out on offense.

Prediction: Philadelphia wins series 4-1

Regular Season playoff picks: 6-2