STANLEY CUP SEMIFINALS OPEN WITH EMBLEMATIC GAME
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – Usually, we don’t refer to this stage of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the “Semifinals”, but in a 16-month span, we’ve all collectively learned to use phrases like “social distancing”, “contact tracing” and “WFH”, adding “Stanley Cup Semifinals” to the lexicon isn’t that hard to swallow.
Only four teams remain in the quest for the Cup: the Montréal Canadiens, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights. All four of those clubs made it this far by surviving their respective divisions throughout the regular season and playoffs, and now we get to see inter-divisional play for the first time this season. Instead of an Eastern Conference Final and a Western Conference Final, the NHL re-seeded the four division winners for the novel Stanley Cup Semifinals.
The Lightning (#2) hosted the Islanders (#3) in the first game of the Semis on Sunday, resulting in a 2-1 win for New York. Not only did it give the underdog Isles a 1-0 series lead over the defending champs, but it was a game that was emblematic of what these Stanley Cup Semifinals series will look like.
Mat Barzal scored the opening goal of the Semifinals, utilizing his blazing speed to grant the Islanders a 1-0 lead midway through the first period. After being held in check by the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1, the young star started to come alive for the Isles in the second-round series against the Boston Bruins. That strong play has already carried over to the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
Barzal returning to form is great news for New York, but everyone knows at this time of year, the teams that see their star players manage to fight their way through the muck and the mud of playoff hockey usually have great success. On Sunday, that was the Islanders. But expect Tampa Bay’s big guns to answer back in Game 2. The Lightning’s stable of Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov have been filling the net at will through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and the latter two did the same in last year’s playoffs, as well.
We’ll see how the top dogs for the Golden Knights and Canadiens fare when their series starts on Monday night.
DOWN TO THE NITTY GRITTY
As much as star-level scoring is a necessity to go on a deep playoff run, so is the ability to grind out a victory. Games get tighter and tighter as the playoffs wear on, even though the bumps and bruises get more and more sore.
Both the Lightning and Islanders were gleefully throwing their weight around in Game 1 of their series. That’s right in line with the Islanders’ team mantra as well as the extra edge Tampa Bay added to its arsenal for its successful Cup run last summer. Perhaps with the exception of some mid-game puck-playing errors on behalf of the Lightning, both teams seemed to fully understand their neither was going to finesse their way to a win. Expect Vegas and Montréal to get the same memo.
Tampa Bay’s goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and New York’s netminder, Semyon Varlamov, were nothing short of excellent in that game on Sunday. One should expect more stellar goaltending in every game of both series of the Stanley Cup Semifinal.
Vasilevskiy may have taken the loss in Game 1, but the Vezina Trophy finalist in each of the last four seasons (and winner in 2018-19) may very well be the gold standard of goaltending these days. If he is, he’s taken that mantle from Montréal’s Carey Price. Price has had rather pedestrian regular seasons the past few years, but he has once again elevated his play in the playoffs. With a postseason-leading .935 save percentage, Price is reminding everyone why he’s widely considered to be the preeminent goalie of his generation.
And who could go without mentioning the sensational regular season and playoffs put forth by former Penguin Marc-André Fleury? The Flower has been in full bloom for Vegas this year, and his 1.91 goals against average tops all remaining goalies in the playoffs. A multi-time Cup Champion, the 36-year-old Fleury looks just as good now as he did in the playoffs with Pittsburgh when he was 23.
The Islanders may not boast the same elite, name-brand talent like the other three remaining teams, but their tandem of Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin has proven formidable in these playoffs. Varlamov had one of his best regular seasons since he was a Vezina finalist in 2013-14. Sorokin may only be a rookie, but his .934 save percentage ranks second in the playoffs.
OVERLOOK NO ONE
The Islanders and Canadiens are decisive underdogs, even after few people gave them much of a chance in either of their previous playoff series. But they’ve done nothing but find ways to win since the postseason started, even if those victories aren’t always pretty.
New York was out-shot by a 82-bid margin in its first two playoff series. Even worse, the Isles surrendered 85 more scoring chances than they earned, per NaturalStatTrick.com. Their Corsi was a paltry 42.2%. The only team with worse possession metrics in the playoffs is the St. Louis Blues, who were promptly swept out of the first round. But the Islanders have a knack for keeping every one of their games within reach. Despite occasionally bleeding chances against, they never seem to trail by more than a goal at any time. Eventually, their relentless forecheck pesters the opponent into making catastrophic mistakes, and the Islanders reap the rewards.
Such was the case in their opening game against Tampa Bay. Early on, the Lightning were firmly in control of the contest, but the Islanders weathered the storm, and started forcing turnover after turnover that eventually evened the scales on the shot clock. Barry Trotz’s squad slowly assumed control of the game, and it evolved into maybe their most suffocating game of the playoffs thus far.
Montréal’s bread and butter is also its vexatious forecheck. It may not pay dividends early, but if Price’s heroics can extend the series, that kind of attack could wear down a Vegas club that just played two long, hand-fought, taxing series against the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche. Also, no team in the playoffs is hotter than the Canadiens, who have won seven games in a row and have enjoyed six-days rest.
Here’s the rest of the Stanley Cup Semifinals schedule, for your viewing pleasure:
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS (#1) vs. MONTRÉAL CANADIENS (#4)
Monday, June 14, 9:00 p.m. @ VGK | NBCSN
Wednesday, June 16, 9:00 p.m. @ VGK | NBCSN
Friday, June 18, 8:00 p.m. @ MTL | USA
Sunday, June 20, 8:00 p.m. @ MTL | NBCSN
*Tuesday, June 22, 9:00 p.m. @ VGK | NBCSN
*Thursday, June 24, 8:00 p.m. @ MTL | USA
*Saturday, June 26, 8:00 p.m. @ VGK | NBCSN
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (#2) vs. NEW YORK ISLANDERS (#3)
Sunday, June 13: Islanders 2, Lightning 1
Tuesday, June 15, 8:00 p.m. @ TB | NBCSN
Thursday, June 17, 8:00 p.m. @ NYI | NBCSN
Saturday, June 19, 8:00 p.m. @ NYI | USA
*Monday, June 21, 8:00 p.m. @ TB | USA
*Wednesday, June 23, 8:00 p.m. @ NYI | NBCSN
*Friday, June 25, 8:00 p.m. @ TB | NBCSN