Updated: Sep 10
After three dramatic 3-1 comebacks, we are finally down to our final four teams. The Tampa Bay Lightning waited patiently to see who their opponent would be, after finishing off the Boston Bruins in five games. The overwhelming majority of hockey fans and writers (myself included) thought that they had the Western Conference down to a science. It would be the Colorado Avalanche going up against the Vegas Golden Knights, but the Western Conference had proved to be not as easy as everyone thought. The Eastern Conference always was the wild card. It could have (and still can) go either way. After the Islanders defeated the Washington Capitals in five games, Philadelphia’s road to the ECF became more and more unclear, as New York emerged as a powerhouse.
In this article I will be giving you a Conference Final preview from both sides, one player from each team for you to keep an eye on, and my pick for each series.
Eastern Conference Finals: Tampa Bay Lightning (2) vs. New York Islanders (6)
The New York Islanders finished off the favored Philadelphia Flyers in a very dramatic 7 game series. After going up 3-1, and then losing two games in a row; allowing Philadelphia to tie the series, it seemed that there was a chink in the armor of the mighty and powerful Islanders. Tampa Bay was able to put their competition away a bit quicker than their new opponents in New York. The Lightning defeated the Boston Bruins 4 games to 1.
New York Islanders Player to Watch
New York’s player to watch for this series is goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov was a brick wall in net during the Flyers series. Varlamov carries a 2019-20 playoff record of 9-4, he let up 28 goals on 356 shots, has 2 shutouts, a .921 SV%, and a 2.00 GAA. After letting up five goals in game 6, head coach Barry Trotz opted to start Thomas Greiss in goal for game 7, who was also brilliant with a shutout against Philadelphia. With plenty of rest, Varlamov should be able to shake off his rough game 6 start in order to be ready for game 1.
Tampa Bay Lightning Player to Watch
Tampa Bay’s player to watch against New York is Left Winger Ondrej Palat. Palat tore it up on the ice against Boston. Palat ranks top 5 on the team in points (9) assists (4) goals (5) and an 8 plus/minus.
The Lightning come into this series as the overwhelming favorite to take home the Prince of Wales Trophy. I have made the mistake of counting out the Islanders in the last two series’, but I am going to do it again. I choose the Tampa Bay Lightning as Eastern Conference Champions for one reason; the downtime. Tampa Bay had the more impressive victory in the second round. They defeated a better Boston team in 5 games, while the Islanders let the sleepy and sluggish Philadelphia Flyers take them to 7 games, almost blowing a 3-1 lead. Tampa has had since August 31st to practice, study film, and get even sharper than they already looked in the second round. Tampa Bay pounced on both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins and went for throat in both series. The Islanders jumped on their first two opponents as well - the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals - but their struggles against Philadelphia and their lack of rest is what I believe will give Tampa Bay the edge in the series. I do think this will be a hard fought series, and like I said, I’ve been wrong before counting the Islanders out. But at the end of the day I believe Tampa Bay is the better team.
Game 1 of this series kicks off Monday, September 7th at 8:00 PM on NBCSN.
Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Dallas Stars (3)
Here are two teams coming from a similar situation. The Dallas Stars gave up a 3-1 lead and defeated the Colorado Avalanche, while the Golden Knights gave up a 3-1 lead, only to eliminate the Vancouver Canucks in game 7. Vegas is still my favorite to win the Stanley Cup this year, but Dallas has come packed with a few surprises of their own. Could struggling against their opponents shake the confidence of both teams? Could saving themselves from the brink of elimination have heightened their confidence? We‘ll soon find out.
Vegas Golden Knights Player to Watch
Defenseman Shea Theodore is Vegas’ player to watch in the Western Conference Final. Theodore leads the Knights’ offense in scoring, with 16 points on 6 goals and 10 assists. Theodore was the hero of game 7 against Vancouver, when he broke Thatcher Demko’s 98-save streak early in the third period to give Vegas a 1-0 lead.
Dallas Stars Player to Watch
Much like the last time I gave a playoff update, defenseman Miro Heiskanen is Dallas’ player to watch. In 16 games, Heiskanen has racked up 21 points on 5 goals and 16 assists, breaking a Dallas Stars franchise record for the most points scored by a defenseman. This record also dates back to before the Dallas relocation, when the Stars were located in Minnesota, as the Minnesota North Stars.
My pick from the beginning has always been the Vegas Golden Knights. And even if they take home the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl for the second time in two years, whether they go up against Tampa Bay or New York in the Stanley Cup Final, they’ll be my favorite in that series too. Even in my first article before the NHL resume, when I had the Boston Bruins winning it all, I still had Vegas as Western Conference Champions. And I’m sticking to that because they haven’t let me down yet.
Game 1 of this series kicks off tonight, Sunday September 6th, at 8:00 PM on NBC.
Congrats to you if your team has made it to the final 4! It is sure to be a wild ride from here on out. This is the best time of the year to be a hockey fan.
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