With a stacked playoff bracket to start the 2021 NHL Playoffs, every first seed from each division has already been eliminated. The playoffs started fast and heavy, with last year’s winners once again in the fold. However, only four teams remain. The Conference Finals matchups are as follows: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens vs. Vegas Golden Knights.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, who raised the Stanley Cup last year, are looking to repeat their fortunes. The head-first action of Nikita Kucherov, starting right winger for Tampa has taken his team to towering heights. Kucherov, as of writing this, has total 19 points, scoring five goals and 14 assists for his team during the postseason. He’s not the sole bright spot though, as Andrei Vasilevskiy has been arguably one of the best goaltenders in the playoffs this year. He currently has a league-leading 381 saves with a fantastic save percentage of 93.4%. The Lightning are currently facing our hometown Islanders in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Islanders have had an interesting route to this playoff series themselves.
Making it to fourth place in the East Division, the Islanders have been far outplaying their seed number in the last few months. Being the only team from New York to make it to the playoffs, leaving both the Rangers and the Sabres to start rebuilding their team, the Islanders look to capitalize on their recent success. A big part of the story of the Islanders in the 2021 postseason has been their defense. Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin have both been amazing goalies for the Islanders this postseason, saving over 460 shots from scoring combined. This was a big factor in New York’s victories over both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins, who were both ranked higher than the Islanders in the Eastern Division.
A lot about their story feels like we’ve seen this before recently. That’s probably because… we have. We saw a very similar situation last year, as the Islanders were the only New York team in the playoffs, making it all the way to the Conference Finals to face none other than, you guessed it, the Lightning, and we know how that turned out. Looking for a different outcome this year, the Islanders will fight to make it to the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1984.
The NHL’s newest team, the Vegas Golden Knights have been a contender since arriving in the league during the 2017-2018 season. The Knights have been dominant, making it to the playoffs every year since their inception, going as far as playing for the Stanley Cup in their inaugural season. This year, the team got tested, being taken to a win-or-go-home Game 7 against the Minnesota Wild in the first round. They came out victorious, winning 6-2 in the crucial last game. It’s been a wild —pun intended— postseason for the Knights, defeating not only Minnesota, but also the number one seed in the Western Division, the Colorado Avalanche in six games. They now look to move on to the Stanley Cup for a second time in their four-year history.
The Knights will be going up against the Canadiens, the team with the most Stanley Cup Championships in history with 23. This year did not look like it would be the Canadiens’ year to go for 24, coming in fourth in the North Division. Not only that, but they’d have to start out the playoffs with a series against the number one seeded and bitter arch-rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Also coming down to a Game 7, the nail-biter Candian standoff saw Montreal goalkeeper Carey Price keep the Leafs scoreless until the closing moments when William Nylander scored Toronto’s only goal of Game 7. The Canadiens would go on to sweep the Winnipeg Jets in round two. Rookie coach Dominique Ducharme has done a great job thus far.
This year’s Stanley Cup Championship promises to be a special one, filled with joyous and heartbreaking moments. The stories going into the both Conference Finals seem to be the catalyst for these teams driving them to success.