The third round of the 2021 NHL playoffs kicks off tomorrow afternoon with Tampa and New York. Vegas and Montreal get their series rolling on Monday night.
Tampa vs. New York
—The Islanders have beaten the Penguins and the Bruins, both in six games. Just finding ways to claw out victories. They’ve swapped goalies multiple times in both series and it’s somehow worked out and NYI has hung around long enough to make their moments count.
While the Isles have found ways to beat two pretty good teams, they both also had their flaws in the lineup, and some questionable goaltending. Tampa offers no such weaknesses, especially in net. Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour had a very long conversation with Andrei Vasilevskiy in the handshake line and revealed what he said. It was the highest of compliments:
Vasilevskiy is 8-3 in this playoff with a .934 save%, a 2.24 GAA and a playoff-high 352 saves so far. Right now he’s in the zone and giving Tampa a huge edge. They don’t need much with five skaters (Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Alex Killorn and Victor Hedman) over a point-per-game so far this postseason.
Tampa is the defending champs, clicking on all cylinders and functioning like a total juggernaut. Which makes NYI, the ultimate team-concept spoiler, a fun counter-balance for them in this series. The Islanders have been getting all the best of breaks so far, but this feels like where it should run out...Tampa in 6.
Vegas vs. Montreal
And on the other side, the Vegas Golden Knights have emerged out of a second round matchup against Colorado that featured the two best teams of the regular season. Old friend Marc-Andre Fleury is almost as hot as Vasilevskiy with an 8-4 record and a stingy 1.91 GAA thanks to the Vegas defensive effort (despite playing one more game than Vasy, Fleury has seen 76 less shots) and an impressive .923 save%.
Fleury is riding high at age 36, earning his first career Vezina finalist season while looking as spry as ever with his agility and flair popping off the screen just the same as that October night in 2003 when he made his debut as a precocious teen with the Penguins against Los Angeles.
Fleury with some game saving stops. A lot of athleticism here. If your pushes aren't as explosive as Fleury's (all of us), a more efficient route, directly to the outside of the post, instead of out towards the shooter will help make this save a little easier. #threesavesaday pic.twitter.com/rjiT80gvhn— Rob Gherson (@goalie_school) June 11, 2021
Montreal has emerged as the unlikely finalist out of the supposedly weak Canadian division, but the Canadiens have been lifted by a veteran goalie performance for the ages of their own coming from franchise icon Carey Price.
In many ways, this Vegas/Montreal series is a mirror to the semifinal on the other side of the bracket. You have the superbly talented powerhouse of a favorite going up against the plucky underdog that finds ways up and down their lineup to just keep winning. The prediction and conventional wisdom looks pretty easy. I doubt getting to the result will be so simple, but I’ll fall into that trap anyways. Vegas in 5.
Beyond just that, I’m interested in seeing who the fans are rooting for at this point. Clearly the no-brainer answer is for Fleury, a very popular player and legitimately good person that everyone has fond memories of.
But is there a grudging respect for the hard-nosed style and structure of the Islanders? Yeah, I doubt it. It doesn’t feel right to watch a division rival succeed, but you certainly can point to the team concept the Islanders employ, plus a tremendous effort every game and want that to be a takeaway for the future.
The same goes for Montreal. The funny thing about the NHL playoffs is we see a lot of teams lose when you think they should be primed to win. But that also means some teams win when they’re written off to lose. Montreal rides on that type of underdog energy.
There’s good reason to not want to see Tampa win in Pittsburgh. The Penguins have the lure of being the only repeat champions in the salary cap era. But it’s the Lightning who now look especially primed to continue a run of greatness this season, they have no real weaknesses and play an exciting style of hard-nosed play combined with the high-end skill and elite goaltending that arguably everyone else is trying to catch up to right now.
So who are you cheering for now with the NHL at the final four?
As a Penguin fan, who do you want to see win the Stanley Cup?
This poll is closed
Vegas! Fleury, Fleury, Fleury!
No preference at all