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.
After diving into the most important player on each of the eight Eastern Conference teams left in the NHL Playoffs, we now turn our attention to the eight teams left in the Western Conference.
So far the action has been hot in Edmonton for the qualifying round, round robin play, and the early parts of the first round, and doesn't look to cool off anytime soon.
Las Vegas Golden Knights
Robin Lehner - G
Las Vegas unknowingly hit a jackpot when they acquired Robin Lehner. Not only did the Golden Knights acquire a goaltender with some playoff experience, but little did they know that they would be bringing in a player who had spent most of the season on the team that they would go up against in the first round of the playoffs. Lehner went 16-10-5 in 31 starts for Chicago this year, and the Swedish goalie has been even better for Las Vegas, winning all of his seven starts in the regular season and playoffs.
The Golden Knights entered the season with three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury at goalie, but they knew they would have to upgrade the position if they wanted to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals, like in their inaugural season in the NHL in 2018. Lehner doesn't have the titles that Fleury does, but the Golden Knights feel like Lehner is the best option to keep the opposition of the board. So far that decision has paid off with interest for Las Vegas.
Nathan MacKinnon - C
The first overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft is essentially the offense of the Colorado Avalanche. Nathan MacKinnon finished the regular season with 35 goals and 93 points. By comparison, no other Colorado player totaled more than 50 points this season. MacKinnon's performance was so impressive, it earned him a spot as finalist in the race for the NHL MVP award. MacKinnon is the only one of the three finalists still left in the playoffs.
If the Avalanche didn't have MacKinnon on their roster, they certainly wouldn't be sitting in the position that they are currently in. MacKinnon opened the scoring in game 2 on Friday afternoon with his second goal of the playoffs. The Avalanche would go on to beat Arizona, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. Last year MacKinnon totaled six goals and seven assists in 12 playoff games, and he looks primed to lead Colorado to an even deeper run in the playoffs this season.
St. Louis Blues
Vladimir Tarasenko - RW
St. Louis Blues RW Vladimir TarasenkoJeff Curry - USA TODAY Sports
One of the key members of the St. Louis Blues team that won the Stanley Cup was winger Vladimir Tarasenko. The Russian scored 11 goals in 26 playoff games last season, helping the Blues to their first title since 1970. The 16th pick in the 2010 draft has been incredibly balanced throughout his NHL career, scoring 214 goals and dishing out 214 assists in 507 games.
Tarasenko's regular season was cut short early on, with a shoulder injury sidelining the winger after just 10 games. Tarasenko might have returned for the playoffs had the NHL not had to pause the season, but there was no guarantee where Tarasenko's health would be. With a couple extra months to recover, Tarasenko was ready to hit the ice at full speed.
So far Tarasenko has been a bit rusty, failing to record a point in three playoff games. During the regular season, only three St. Louis players scored at least 20 goals, which makes Tarasenko's return to the lineup even more important, especially since they have to take on the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs. If Tarasenko can find his rhythm in the offense, the Blues could make another deep playoff run.
Bo Horvat - C
Vancouver Canucks C Bo HorvatDan Toulgoet - Vancouver Courier
Vancouver is an up-and-coming team, and they might have just found their leader in the playoffs. Canucks like Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes may get more attention, but there might not be a hotter hockey player out there right now than Bo Horvat. The center scored two goals and was credited with two assists in Vancouver's four qualifying round games against Minnesota. Horvat has been even better in the first two games against St. Louis, recording four goals, including the winner in overtime in game 2.
Horvat has always had a knack for finding the back of the net, scoring at least 20 goals in each of the last four seasons, but the Ontario native has really caught fire inside the bubble in Edmonton. Now with Vancouver just a couple wins away from the second round, it'll be interested to see if Horvat can keep his hot stretch of play going. If Horvat doesn't cool off, Vancouver will be a tougher out in the playoffs than some were expecting the Canucks to be.
Mark Giordano - D
Stat-wise, Giordano fell off a little bit during the regular season, but it doesn't mean the captain of the Flames became any less important to the team. After winning the Norris Trophy last year as the league's best defenseman, Giordano only recorded five goals and 31 points this year in 60 games, marking the first time since the 2012-13 season in which he failed to reach double digits in goal tallies.
Much like Eastern Conference blue line counterparts, Seth Jones and Dougie Hamilton, Giordano is the heart of the Flames. While youngsters Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Guadreau receive most of Calgary's headlines, Giordano is the calming force on defense that has propelled the Flames to a 2-1 series lead on Dallas in the first round.
Darcy Kuemper - G
Looking at the Arizona roster, it's probably a bit of a surprise that Kuemper is the Coyote identified as the most important player, especially with guys like Phil Kessel, Taylor Hall, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Dig a little deeper and it's easy to see why. Kessel is in the latter half of his career, and not producing quite like he did in Pittsburgh. Hall was traded from New Jersey earlier this year, so he is still trying to adjust to his new teammates and style of play.
With Arizona sneaking into the playoffs, they'll likely have to play some of the best teams in the conference if they want to make a deep run. Kuemper came up huge against Nashville in the qualifying round, recording at least 40 saves in each of Arizona's three wins in the series. The first round matchup against Colorado has proven a little tougher, with the Avalanche winning both games, but Kuemper is still performing at a high level. If the Coyotes are going to comeback against a very talented Colorado team, it will be because Kuemper stood on his head between the pipes.
Jonathan Toews - C
Chicago Blackhawks C Jonathan ToewsJerome Miron - USA TODAY Sports
You name it on the ice, and Jonathan Toews has probably done it. The captain of the Blackhawks is a three-time Stanley Cup champion, was playoff MVP in 2010, and has made the All-Star Game on five separate occasions. Even though this is season 13 for Toews in the NHL, he has shown so far in the playoffs he is still one of the best in the league.
Coming into the qualifying round, it looked like Chicago's backs were against the wall, since the Blackhawks were matched up with Edmonton. With the NHL's Western Conference bubble being in Edmonton, the Oilers had a bit of a home-ice advantage. Add in the Oilers having young stars like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and it was hard to see Chicago advancing.
Toews showed that even though he has a few years on the Edmonton stars, that he is still dangerous, scoring two goals and recording three assists in the four-game series victory for the Blackhawks. Patrick Kane may light up the scoresheet more than Toews, but there is no doubt the captain is what makes Chicago tick. As long as Toews is on the ice, the Blackhawks are never truly out of it.
With the qualifying and round robin round play of the Stanley Cup playoffs having been completed, now we have moved on to the NHL Playoff format that we are all familiar with.
24 teams started play in Toronto and Edmonton, but eight teams have already been sent packing, including the two teams who call the bubble cities home.
What makes the NHL playoffs such an exciting tournament is how one player can have such a huge impact on the game: a goaltender getting hot and turning into a brick, a forward scoring with seemingly every shot he puts on net, or a defenseman who is shutting down the key offensive threats of his opponents. One player finding his groove at the right time could be the difference between a team advancing in the playoffs or heading home.
So who are the most important players left in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs? We'll identify the most important player on each of the eight teams left in the Eastern Conference.
Shayne Gostisbehere - D
Just a few years ago nobody thought Shayne Gostisbehere would be where is now. Gostisbehere scored 17 goals in the 2015-16 season, finishing as runner-up in Calder Memorial Trophy voting, which is awarded annually to the NHL Rookie of the Year. The defenseman went on to score 13 goals in the 2017-18 season, but in the two years since Gostisbehere has only scored 14 goals for the Flyers.
There was talk of trading Gostisbehere before the trade deadline, but the defenseman has had arthroscopic surgery on both knees, which made teams hesitant to pull the trigger on bringing him. It looks like Philadelphia will benefit from their patience with Gostisbehere, as he is now healthy for the playoff run. Gostisbehere notched two assists in the only round robin game he played in, which was a win over Tampa Bay.
The Flyers are loaded on offense and defense, so it's not like they need Gostisbehere to be a top-line defenseman. But, his presence will do wonders as adds to the tremendous depth that has helped Philadelphia to the top seed in the Eastern Conference. If Gostisbehere returns to the form he showed earlier in his career, it will be extremely tough to bounce the Flyers from the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov - RW
Last year's playoffs were a nightmare for Tampa Bay, as the Lightning were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. A major reason for the meltdown by the Presidents Trophy winners was the disappearance of Nikita Kucherov, the league's MVP last season. Kucherov tallied just two assists and was suspended for Game 3 after boarding Markus Nutivaara in Game 2.
The Lightning again have drawn the Blue Jackets in the playoffs, but they are already found more success than last year. Tampa Bay won Game 1 3-2 in quintuple overtime, with Kucherov notching two assists in the victory. Prior to last year's playoff dud, Kucherov had scored 29 goals in 62 playoff games, so there's no question he can produce when the spotlight is on. With Kucherov engaged and creating scoring opportunities, it's going to be hard for the Lightning to be beaten four times in a seven-game series.
Braden Holtby - G
Washington Capitals G Braden Holtby Nick Wass/AP/Shutterstock
It would be easy to tag Alex Ovechkin as the most important player on the Washington Capitals, but the Capitals will need one player to step up even more this year. Goaltender Braden Holtby has had a rough go of it since leading Washington to the Stanley Cup two years ago. The goalie has averaged three goals per game allowed in each of the last two years, which just isn't going to cut it in the playoffs.
Holtby has shown some promise early in these playoffs at least, with his goals against average below two after two round robin games. The goaltending position got a little more complicated for the Capitals during the shutdown, as backup Ilya Samsonov was injured in an off-ice incident in Russia. That leaves rookie Vitek Vanecek as the backup, which means the Capitals likely won't pull Holtby if he is struggling, unless absolutely necessary.
Travis Pastrnak - RW
Boston Bruins RW David PastrnakMaddie Meyer - Getty Images
The only thing that has slowed David Pastrnak down this year has been the shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 70 games this year, Pastrnak potted 48 goals and dished out 47 assists, but he somehow wasn't named as finalist for this season's NHL MVP. Pastrnak certainly has something to prove, especially after two of the three MVP finalists have already been bounced from the playoffs.
The Bruins really struggled in the round robin, losing all three games to drop them to the fourth seed after finishing the regular season with the highest point total. It's no coincidence that Pastrnak didn't record a point in any of the three round robin games. Pastrnak has already started off Round 1 with a bang, recording a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win in overtime over the Carolina Hurricanes. If Boston wants to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals, they'll need Pastrnak to channel his regular season form.
Dougie Hamilton - D
The Hurricanes took a serious hit in January when Dougie Hamilton suffered a broken leg. At the time many thought Hamilton's season was over, but we also had no idea how hard the COVID-19 pandemic would hit this country, pausing the NHL season for four months. Prior to the injury, Hamilton had scored 14 goals and was credited with 26 assists in 47 games.
Hamilton was able to return to the ice for Game 1 of Carolina's series against Boston, logging nearly 27 minutes of ice time in the double overtime loss. While Carolina does have a solid group of defenseman with guys like Jaccob Slavin and Jake Gardiner, they don't provide the same type of offensive skills that Hamilton does. If Hamilton is able to return to form quickly, the Hurricanes will push the team that swept them in the Eastern Conference Finals last year.
New York Islanders
Adam Pelech - D
Much like Carolina, the New York Islanders have an injured defenseman returning who could make all the difference. In early January it was announced that Adam Pelech would miss the rest of the season due to an achilles injury. Luckily for Pelech the playoffs were delayed until August, allowing him extra time to recover.
Prior to Pelech getting injured, the Islanders were 28-11-3. Once Pelech as sidelined, the Islanders were just 10-13-7, and 0-3-4 in the seven games prior to the league shutdown. Had action not have been paused, the Islanders likely would have missed the playoffs.
The return of Pelech couldn't have come at a better time, as he'll be helping to try and slow down Alex Ovechkin and the potent Washington attack. Now that Pelech is bak to pair with Ryan Pulock and steady the blue line of the Islanders, New York has a lot better shot to upset the Capitals and move on in the playoffs.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Seth Jones - D
Columbus Blue Jackets D Seth JonesAaron Doster - USA TODAY Sports
The third, and final, returning defenseman on this list is Seth Jones. The seventh-year pro took a puck to the ankle in a game against Colorado in early February, resulting in a fractured ankle. Including the game Jones was injured in, Columbus lost seven straight games and won just three of their final 15 contests before the NHL shutdown.
The impact of Jones (when he is healthy) is immeasurable. In the five overtime thriller against Tampa Bay in Game 1, Jones was on the ice for 65 minutes. Jones gives the Blue Jackets a sense of calm on defense, something that was obviously missing when he was injured in February. Columbus can now field one of the best defensive combinations in the NHL, with 20-goal scorer Zach Werenski pairing with Jones on the blue line.
Carey Price - G
If Montreal is going to have any shot of taking down the top-ranked Philadelphia Flyers, they'll need goaltender Carey Price to stand on his head. Price and the Canadiens have already taken down one team from Pennsylvania this year, as Montreal defeated Pittsburgh in four games in the qualifying round, with Price allowing just 1.67 goals per game and saving nearly 95% of the shots Pittsburgh took in the series.
With the Canadiens being rather limited on offense, they'll desperately need Price to stand tall and keep them in the game. Having to carry the load isn't anything new for Price though, as he has led the NHL in minutes played in each of the last two years. While Philadelphia has a solid offense, with nine players scoring at least 10 goals this season, Price has shown before that he can take over a series and will his team to victory.