Hockey prognosticating is a tough and unforgiving game.
After all, everybody remembers when you get things wrong. And hey, fair enough. As a sports fan, it’s intensely gratifying – especially after your underdog team pulls an upset – to go back and read all the poorly-aged takes from so-called experts about how there was no chance that upset was going to happen. Until it did.
Like, for example, when someone predicts, despite 15 years’ worth of evidence to the contrary, Toronto will finally exercise its first-round demons ahead of Game 7 against Montreal. Or they balk at the notion of Winnipeg shutting down Connor McDavid for an entire playoff series. Whoops.
With that in mind, I’m going to cover all my bases here and give you one reason each remaining team in the 2021 playoffs will for sure win the Stanley Cup this year. And one reason they absolutely won’t. That way, nobody can laugh at me when the playoffs reach their conclusion.
That is unless the Canadiens win the Cup despite poor performances by Carey Price in Rounds 3 and 4. If that happens, you have my full permission to laugh directly in my face.
Vegas Golden Knights – Why They’ll Win: …It’s Vegas
The Golden Knights have been the expansion exemplar in major pro sports since their inaugural season in 2017-18. And 2020-21 has been no exception. Vegas ranked third in the NHL in goals, allowed the fewest goals against and had the best goal-differential (plus-67) during the regular season. They were neck-and-neck with Colorado in the Presidents’ Trophy race all year, ultimately finishing tied with the juggernaut Avalanche in points percentage but losing out for the plaudit because they had fewer regulation wins.
After being pushed the distance by Minnesota in Round 1 – and dropping the first two games of Round 2 to Colorado – Vegas flexed its muscles by eliminating the seemingly impervious Avs with four consecutive victories.
They have everything a team could realistically ask for: goaltending – Marc-Andre Fleury has been sublime – scoring depth, stalwart defenders and team grit. That’s probably why moneypuck.com likes Vegas’ chances more than every other team combined; Vegas is currently listed at 53.3 percent to win it all.
Vegas Golden Knights – Why They Won’t: Lack of a Transcendent Offensive Weapon
Admittedly, you’ve got to grasp at straws to come up with a reason to dislike Vegas in the franchise’s fourth season; it's a powerhouse team without any glaring flaws.
If you’re nitpicking, the Golden Knights lack a singular offensive cornerstone who opponents must structure an entire gameplan around stopping. Even still, of the teams remaining, only Tampa Bay emphatically bests Vegas in this regard. Mark Stone paced Vegas in scoring this season with 61 points in 55 games, good for 11th in the NHL. That’s actually more than any other player still playing. Of course, had Nikita Kucherov played in the regular season, things may well have been different.
Vegas’ prevailing offensive characteristic remains its depth rather than its transcendent talent, however. So if there’s one reason to dislike the Golden Knights, that may have to be it.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Why They’ll Win: Their Strengths
The defending champs are down a game against the Isles, but they’re still in a prime position to make a run at a second consecutive championship. They’re so situated because of the otherworldly play of Andrei Vasilevskiy, whose .934 save percentage ties him for the NHL playoff lead, and because their power play is currently humming along at an almost unfathomable 42.1 percent clip in the post-season. That’s best in the NHL.
The playoff return of elite offensive talent Kucherov has been a massive boon to the Lightning’s power play, which ranked ninth in the regular season. Kucherov has four goals and 14 points on the man advantage in 12 playoff games. In fact, Tampa players make up five of the top six power-play scorers in the post-season.
Adding Kucherov to an already stacked roster makes Tampa an incredibly difficult out moving forward. Coupled with the play of the best goaltender on earth, the Lightning are downright scary.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Why They Won’t: Overreliance on Their Strengths
Andrei Vasilevskiy and the outstanding PP have powered Tampa through the first two rounds, but the Lightning have quietly been giving up far too many grade A scoring chances. At all strengths, Tampa is the worst of the four remaining teams in almost every conceivable rate stat measuring scoring opportunities allowed.
Should either of their two noted strengths falter for any length of time, Tampa will be in a world of trouble unless they shore up their own end. The apparent injury of superstar D-man Victor Hedman has hurt terribly in this regard. He’s been a net-negative during the playoffs – though he’s still producing points on the power play – and is clearly hampered significantly.
Tampa Bay has scored 22 goals and conceded 20 at even strength in the playoffs. And that’s despite the third-highest even-strength save percentage of any team. If they don’t win the Cup this year, it'll be because they relied too heavily upon their strengths and burned them out.
New York Islanders – Why They’ll Win: Man-alytics
The Islanders drew first blood against defending champion Tampa Bay with a big 2-1 victory in Game 1. That’s obviously huge for their Cup chances. Because analytically, seven wins are easier to get than are eight, you see. Mind-blowing, I know.
Beyond that, the Isles have a couple of X-factors on their side. Firstly, while New York may be outgunned on paper by teams like Tampa and Vegas, they have an ‘equalizer’ behind their bench. Barry Trotz spent 15 years maximizing the effectiveness of usually outgunned Nashville teams. And since he left the Predators in 2014, he’s collected two Jack Adams Awards and a Stanley Cup. If anyone knows how to buck the numbers, it’s Trotz.
In addition, the Isles have the magic of the Nassau Coliseum with them. The ‘Coli’ has been rocking this spring in what’ll be the Islanders’ final playoff run in its friendly confines.
New York Islanders – Why They Won’t: Analytics
How much credibility one gives to analytics is up to them. And in a relatively small and chaotic sample size like the playoffs, sometimes 'unsustainable' play can be sustained. But at 5-on-5, the Islanders have been awful analytically in the playoffs. They rank bottom-three in stats like Corsi, Fenwick and scoring chances. They're fifth-worst in expected goals percentage. In fact, not even one of their analytical team stats puts their heads above water at 5-on-5.
They’ve gotten here largely because of their wonderful goaltending coupled with poor goaltending from their adversaries. At 5-on-5 the Isles have an overall PDO of 1.043 and a PDO of 1.082 on scoring chances. Thus, one should expect their 3.46 goals per game in the playoffs (2nd in the NHL) to eventually come down and their 2.62 goals against per game (5th) to rise.
The Isles penalty kill has also been sluggish, at just 60.7 percent. If that doesn't change, it will be hard, even for a Trotz-coached team, to overcome.
Montreal Canadiens – Why They Wont: Everyone Was Right About the North Division
All year, the consensus was the North Division was by far the worst of the realignment bunch. It was said the division’s mediocrity propped up ‘mirage’ teams to make them look better than they were and allowed players like Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid to feast on weak opponents. Once a North team had to play one of their American counterparts, it was said, they would be in trouble.
Even in that seemingly feeble division, the Canadiens managed to win fewer than half their regular-season games, victorious in just 24 of 56 contests. Those 24 wins were fewest of any playoff team; ranked them behind non-playoff teams like the Rangers, Flames and Flyers; and tied them with distinct non-contenders Chicago and Arizona.
So what does it say of the North when a team like that ultimately wins the division? Especially when the Habs won the final round of its playoffs in a trouncing of Winnipeg? Well, it validates that opinion. Or at least it will if the Habs fall quickly to Vegas.
Montreal Canadiens – Why They’ll Win: Sometimes Hockey Doesn’t Make Sense
Firstly, Montreal probably deserved a better fate in the regular season. At 5-on-5, they performed favorably in most analytical categories. The Habs ranked 10th in the league in expected goals percentage (52.01) and were second in the league – behind Colorado in both cases – in Corsi and scoring chance percentage. Montreal’s record was predominately hampered by poor goaltending luck; their PDO of .989 tied them with New Jersey for seventh-worst in the NHL.
Regardless, that doesn’t change the context of the division in which they played. Nor does it change their lack of a game-breaking superstar to drive play toward their opponents’ net.
But hockey is a chaotic game highly susceptible to luck, chance and, above all, a hot goaltender. And Carey Price is about as hot as a goaltender can be right now. You can read more about Price’s marvelous spring in my Conn Smythe candidates blog here.
One thing’s for sure, if Montreal wins, it’ll have a lot to do with Price’s playoff heroics – which are, themselves, almost beyond sense-making explanation.