Just over a month after getting back on the ice, the NHL playoffs have already reached the conference finals.
Dallas Stars v. Las Vegas Golden Knights
Over in the Western Conference, top-seeded Las Vegas has already found themselves in a one-game hole against the Dallas Stars. The Golden Knights have only been in the NHL for three seasons, but this is already their second trip to the Western Conference Finals, with their first trip coming in their expansion season where they downed Winnipeg 4-1 in 2018.
There were plenty of similarities in the conference semifinals for both teams, as Dallas and Las Vegas jumped out to 3-1 series leads. The Stars and Golden Knights couldn't make quick work of their opponents though, as they needed to go to a Game 7 before securing their spot in the Western Conference Finals.
Las Vegas was cruising agains Vancouver before they ran into back goaltender Thatcher Demko, who was forced into action after Vancouver saw goalie Jacob Markstrom injured in Game 4. Demko resembled a brick wall, allowing just one goal in Games 5 & 6 before Shea Theodore scored the game-winning goal in the third period of Game 7. Theodore is leading the Golden Knights with 16 points so far in the playoffs.
Las Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Shea TheodorePaul Sancya - Associated Press
Las Vegas is such a tough team to beat in a seven-game series because of their goaltender depth. Robin Lehner, who was acquired from Chicago before the trade deadline, has seen most of the ice-time between the pipes for the Golden Knights in the playoffs, sporting a 1.99 goals against average and three shutouts in 12 games. 14-year veteran Marc-Andre Fleury has seen some spot starts to give Lehner a rest, and has been solid when called on.
After struggling to find consistent offense during the regular season, Dallas has found their scoring touch in the postseason. Defenseman Miro Heiskanen has 21 points to lead the Stars, while Denis Gurianov and Joe Pavelski have each scored a team-high eight goals. The most impressive performance of Gurianov's career came in Game 6 against Calgary when he notched a hat trick in the second period, and scored another goal in the third period to help the Stars secure a spot in the conference semifinals against Calgary.
Dallas Stars forward Denis GurianovRonald Martinez - Getty Images
Dallas has been able to work around some early inconsistencies at goalie in the playoffs. Starter Ben Bishop was awful early on, allowing 12 goals in three games. That lead head coach Rick Bowness to turn to Anton Khudobin, who has steadied the position a little. Coming into this series, Khudobin had a 2.94 goals against average, which isn't great, but showed how good he can be in the Game 1 shutout of Las Vegas, where he stopped all 29 shots.
The Stars may have stolen the first game, but there is still a long way to go in this series. The Golden Knights have a little too much depth and scoring punch for the Stars to match. Dallas has caught a couple teams in bad spots already in the playoffs, most notably Colorado last round when the Avalanche lost a number of key players due to injury. I don't think they were get as lucky against a strong Las Vegas squad. The Golden Knights win this series in six games.
New York Islanders v. Tampa Bay Lightning
After a short, embarrassing showing in last year's playoffs, the Tampa Bay Lightning have some unfinished business to take care of this year. The only team standing in Tampa Bay's way from their third Stanley Cup Final appearance is the New York Islanders, who are making their first Eastern Conference Final appearance since 1993.
The Lightning found themselves as the second seed after the round-robin seeding round, which matched them up with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who swept Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs last year. Tampa Bay survived a five overtime thriller in Game 1 against the Blue Jackets, and it has been relatively smooth sailing for the Lightning since, as they have only dropped two games in the first two rounds.
Not many teams can matchup with Tampa Bay, who have stars on offense, defense, and at goaltender. Nikita Kucherov is the reigning NHL MVP, Victor Hedman has been a finalist for the Norris Trophy in each of the last four years. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Vezina Trophy last year, and is finalist for the award again this year.
Brock Nelson led the Islanders during the regular season with 26 goals, and has added seven tallies in the postseason. Mathew Barzal is a playmaker, as evidenced by his 50 assists between the regular season and playoffs.
New York Islanders forward Mathew BarzalBrad Penner - USA TODAY Sports
After the Islanders slumped in the middle of the season and nearly missed the playoffs following the injury to Adam Pelech, the return of the defenseman has seen a spark in play from New York in Toronto. Even with Pelech back healthy, it's hard to see the Islanders keeping the potent Tampa attack off the scoreboard. We saw the problems the Lightning can cause already, as they chased starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov in Game 1 after putting five pucks past Varlamov. Islanders head coach Barry Trotz will have a decision to make on whether he wants to go back to Varlamov, or give backup Thomas Greiss a shot at slowing down the Lightning.
If the Islanders don't make some changes quick, they'll see their season end in the next week. New York can't afford to play from behind against Tampa Bay, as the Islanders won't be able to find the offense to keep up with the Lightning. While it has been a fun ride for the Islanders and their fans, Tampa Bay is a team on a mission right now. The Lightning take this series in five games.