The Stanley Cup playoffs are down to just four teams that are battling to win it all. And after numerous heart-pounding moments over the first two rounds of the postseason, we could be in for many more as the field shrinks to the NHL’s most elite teams.
To the surprise of many, the top-seeded Florida Panthers were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference semifinals. In even more of a surprise, the Panthers scored just three goals in four games after being the league’s top-scoring team throughout the regular season. In the other Eastern Conference semifinal matchup, the New York Rangers edged out the Carolina Hurricanes behind a terrific Game 7 performance from goaltender Igor Shesterkin.
In the Western Conference, the Colorado Avalanche defeated the St. Louis Blues in six games. The Avs’ road became a little easier when Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington suffered a series-ending knee injury in Game 3. In the other Western Conference semifinal, the Edmonton Oilers shocked the world — our experts included — by taking down the Calgary Flames in five games. After dropping Game 1 in a 9-6 scoring explosion, the Oilers won four straight to take the series on the back of star center Connor McDavid.
The conference finals are slated to begin on Tuesday. In the Western Conference, the top-seeded Avalanche will be taking on the No. 2 seed Oilers, while the No. 2 seed Rangers will face the No. 3 seed Lightning in the East.
With the next round set to get underway, our NHL experts revealed their predictions for the conference finals.
(1) Avalanche vs. (2) Oilers
Chris: The Avalanche have looked like an absolute juggernaut all year, and that remained the case in the Blues series. Colorado did face adversity, though, by losing Game 5 and trailing in Game 6 before Darren Helm saved the day with a late game-winning goal. This matchup is awesome for the league, as two of the sport’s top stars in Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon will be in action. The amount of star power in this series is limitless, and these are the two highest-scoring teams remaining in the postseason. Still, I can’t go against the Avalanche in this spot. Colorado is the more complete team and can get production from all four lines if needed. Pick — Avalanche beat Oilers 4-2
Austin: In the last round, I thought the Flames’ depth would push them past the Oilers. However, Edmonton has the biggest trump card in the league: Connor McDavid. The best player in the world has elevated his game even more. With seven goals and 19 assists, McDavid has produced enough points for an entire postseason in just two rounds. That said, McDavid and the Oilers face their biggest test yet in the Avalanche. The Avs were my Stanley Cup pick before the playoffs started, and that won’t change now. While the Flames didn’t have any one player in the same stratosphere as McDavid, Colorado does not have that problem. Nathan MacKinnon is a top-five player, and Cale Makar has more than lived up to his Norris Trophy hype in these playoffs. I expect that to continue and for the Avs to keep dancing. Pick — Avalanche beat Oilers 4-2
(2) Rangers vs. (3) Lightning
Chris: I’m man enough to admit when I’m wrong, and boy was I wrong about the Panthers. I expected a series that went six or seven games with the Lightning, but the Panthers completely laid an egg. Trust me, I’ve learned my lesson. It’s just not a smart strategy to bet against goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is establishing himself as an all-time great. In his last seven series-clinching starts, Vasilevskiy has surrendered one goal on 200 shots. That’s just mind-boggling. Listen, the Rangers have a tremendous stable of goal scorers with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider playing spectacular hockey right now. However, I just can’t pick against the Lightning when they’re playing so well. It’s also worth noting they swept the Panthers without Brayden Point. Pick — Lightning beat Rangers 4-2
Austin: I have picked against both of these teams the entire postseason, so that streak has to end for one of them now. The Rangers deserve a lot of credit for the way they have been able to finish on such a high percentage of their dangerous scoring chances, but they won’t be facing a backup goalie in this series. Quite the opposite, in fact. Andrei Vasilevskiy is, in my opinion, the NHL’s best goaltender, and he has proven that again through these first two rounds. Considering what he and the rest of the Lightning did to an explosive Panthers offense last round, I don’t have much hesitation when picking them to do the same to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final. Pick — Lightning beat Rangers 4-1