We are officially down to our final four! The Conference Finals are upon us, two teams will go on to play for the most coveted trophy in all of sports, and two teams will be left to disappointedly hang up the skates and try again next year.
McDavid vs. MacKinnon, Shesterkin vs. Vasilevskiy... it doesn't get much better than playoff hockey.
(Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid lineup for the faceoff) (via NHL.com)
Tampa Bay Lightning (A3) vs. New York Rangers (M2)
Both the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning were underdogs in their respective second round matchups. Tampa Bay went up against their intrastate rivals and President's Trophy winners, the Florida Panthers, and very impressively swept them right out of the playoffs.
While the Lightning went into that series with doubts -- being the lower seed, not having home ice advantage and missing forward Brayden Point -- we all still expected them to put up a good fight. They are, after all, the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions. I don't think anyone could've predicted a clean sweep, though. The Florida Panthers were heavily considered to be the best team in the East this year, and the Lightning made them look like an AHL team.
The New York Rangers second round matchup against the Carolina Panthers went a little bit differently. Unlike the Lightning, the Rangers were expected to not make much of a contest against a high-powered Carolina offense. After going into Game 6 down 3-2 in the series, New York reached down deep, had a gut check, and won two games in a row -- one of which was on the road against a very dominant home team -- to eliminate the Hurricanes in seven games. It was a major upset, and the Rangers are showing the league that they're not the soft underbelly of the East that everyone thought they were.
New York swept the season series from Tampa Bay this year, winning all three matchups, one of which was a shutout. The Rangers will also have the benefit of home ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference Final.
This series is perhaps most exciting because of the fact that it features the two best goaltenders in the world right now. Igor Shesterkin for New York, who will be the likely recipient of this year's Vezina Trophy after putting up one of the best seasons by a goaltender in the history of the NHL, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, two time Stanley Cup Champion, 2021 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and 2019 Vezina Trophy winner.
I had faith and I was right last round, and I'm going to do it again here in the Eastern Conference Final!
Prediction: Rangers in 7
Edmonton Oilers (P2) vs. Colorado Avalanche (C1)
Out of all four teams still remaining in the playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers are possibly the most surprising squad to still be in contention. Despite having Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, there was a point in time during the regular season in which it looked like the Oilers might miss the playoffs completely.
But here they are. Edmonton has faced adversity and doubt throughout this entire year, and have smashed every expectation and assumption that has been made of them. Not many people expected Edmonton to beat the heavily favored Calgary Flames in the Battle of Alberta last round, but not only did the Oilers beat the Flames, they smashed them into pieces, winning the series in a very impressive and decisive five games.
The Colorado Avalanche, however, are still the best team in the NHL in my opinion, and the next best team isn't even close to them. I've said it a thousand times before and I'll say it a thousand times again, no one is beating Colorado this year. You're looking at your eventual 2022 Stanley Cup Champions. As much as I'd love to see McDavid hoist the Stanley Cup, it just isn't going to happen while the Colorado Avalanche stand in the way.
Edmonton's downfall will be their lackluster goaltending. And while Mike Smith has been able to hold it together so far, the Avalanche has a high-powered, dominant offense. I think this is where Smith and the Oilers' goalie luck runs out.
But, on a brighter note, much like the Eastern Conference Final featuring Shesterkin and Vasilevskiy, you have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl going up against Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Mikko Rantanen, five of the most talented hockey players on planet Earth.
Prediction: Avalanche in 5