neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): It wouldn’t be the Stanley Cup playoffs without some wild results, and the semifinal round has certainly delivered in that department. On Wednesday night, the New York Islanders overcame a 2-0 deficit (and an 8-0 loss the game before) to force Game 7 against the defending-champion Tampa Bay Lightning before a raucous home crowd on Long Island. And on Thursday, the Montreal Canadiens finished upsetting the heavily favored Vegas Golden Knights with an overtime win of their own, stamping an extremely unlikely ticket to the Stanley Cup final.
So … yeah, all of that just happened. I guess I’ll start us off by talking about Montreal. How exactly have the Habs been able to make this deep playoff run after a regular season in which they were far from impressive? (Even after Thursday, they’ve won 36 games and lost 37 over the entire season.) Is it just a case of a team peaking at the right time?
terrence.doyle (Terrence Doyle, FiveThirtyEight contributor): All I can say is: I don’t know.
terrence.doyle: I’m on record saying that they wouldn’t have even made the playoffs in a normal season, so all I can do is shrug and congratulate the lovely people of Montreal. Also: Carey Price. Carey Price is essentially the reason. He (and Andrei Vasilevskiy) are our hot goalies. Tantalizing to think they could meet in the final.
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emily (Emily Scherer, designer): I’m tempted to place all of this on Carey Price, but somehow all of the pieces on this team have come together.
terrence.doyle: 👆 Fair.
neil: Yeah. Price improving on his regular-season save percentage by 33 points certainly is a big factor. But this also isn’t quite the same team we saw for most of the year, at least in terms of who’s making a big impact.
In the Vegas series, Cole Caufield (age 20), Nick Suzuki (21) and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (20) all ranked among the Canadiens’ top five in scoring; during the regular season, only Suzuki ranked that highly.1 So we are seeing some pretty impressive performances emerging from Montreal’s young talent.
emily: Well, Caufield was still in college for the start of the season too. 🦡
terrence.doyle: Cole is having a good time out there. Cole’s age-20 year is going much better than most people’s age-20 years.
emily: Tampa Bay gets Nikita Kucherov healthy just for the playoffs, Montreal brings in Caufield right in time for playoffs — maybe this is the new winning strategy.
neil: It’s probably fair to say he’s one of the reasons maybe Montreal’s previous numbers weren’t totally representative. Although it’s not every season when a player this young comes out and has this kind of performance in the playoffs, particularly against a team that tied for the league’s best record.
terrence.doyle: Definitely not. And to be (more) fair (than I want to be or ever expected to be) to the Habs, THIS WAS A DEEPLY WEIRD REGULAR SEASON. Not clicking early can be forgiven. And if you added this playoff run to the end of the regular season and made it a normal regular season, they’d just be that season’s “team that got hot at the right time heading into the playoffs.” They did enough to qualify, and their hot streak just happened to coincide WITH the playoffs. And so here we are.
emily: The weird season is deeply weird.
neil: I wanted to get into that a little, too. The guys at Puck Soup were saying the other day that Montreal’s playoff success is another piece of evidence that the regular season means nothing. Is that right? And, let’s say there actually is something about the way Montreal is built that made them more suited for the playoffs than the regular season … is that such a bad thing?
terrence.doyle: I think if anything it’s an argument for a shorter regular season. If it doesn’t mean anything, please, let’s do far less of it.
As weird as this season was, I really liked the length. Sure, we’d need asterisks on points totals (although maybe we could finally as a culture adopt more advanced analytics to judge careers by instead of raw points totals, or at least points per game stats), but idk, 82 games is a lot of games. Especially when it seems like the team I support plays the Ottawa Senators at least 32 times a season.
Also, like … what’s the point if the regular season — so, the bulk of the season — doesn’t matter? (I don’t disagree with the Puck Soup folks, FWIW.) Shortening the season is a way to put more at stake.
neil: If only we could get the owners to agree to fewer home dates (especially with full-capacity crowds returning). 😬
terrence.doyle: LOLOL, yeah, I mean it WON’T happen. We’re more likely to see 100-game seasons than 56-game seasons.
(Please don’t let this happen, dear hockey gods.)
But I do like the idea — and more generally, I also like the idea of having to build for somewhat different styles in the playoffs vs. the regular season. It keeps things interesting. Teams are not fixed entities.
terrence.doyle: I’m with you, Neil. That said, I wouldn’t be shocked if the next collective bargaining agreement contains language that prohibits teams from doing what Tampa did. (Before all you Tampa fans yell at me online: I don’t think Tampa did anything wrong!)
emily: It’s the same across nearly all sports! The regular season matters to get you to qualify for the postseason, and that’s sort of it. You get a clean start for the playoffs.
neil: That’s the beauty of it, and the beauty of a run like Montreal is on right now. It’s why they play the games — and why we watch.
OK, let’s pivot to the Lightning and the Islanders. We’ll know by tonight which of the two teams will advance and join Montreal in the final, but we should savor this series while it lasts — it has been a real doozy. Although the Isles served early notice that they would not let Tampa Bay steamroll them, it seemed like they would come up short after losing Game 5 8-0 (which put the Bolts on the verge of advancing) and falling behind in Game 6. But what a resilient win for New York on Wednesday to give us our two favorite words as hockey fans: Game. Seven.
I won’t ask for immediately outdated predictions on tonight’s game, but what has stood out to you most about this series?
terrence.doyle: For me, the biggest surprise is what you just said up top. The Isles get ROASTED — I mean, fully embarrassed — in Game 5, and somehow pick themselves up off the ice and force a Game 7? As a fan of that 1980s dynasty (even though it happened before I was alive), I’m starting to pull for the Isles here. One last hurrah in the old barn is a real nice story. And you know we all love a NARRATIVE.
Also, I have to mention the beer cans.
neil: You’re saying it was weird to rain down beer cans on your own players after a huge win?
terrence.doyle: It was a “perfectly Long Island” thing to do. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
terrence.doyle: (Before all you Long Islanders start yelling at me online, I’m from Boston’s north shore, which is the Long Island of Massachusetts. I get it.)
emily: The Islanders’ Anthony Beauvillier had another great quote about it: “That building coming into overtime was smelling like cigarettes. Now it smells like beers.”
terrence.doyle: I smiled a big smile when he said that.
I give the Islanders a lot of shit, but it’s really just jealousy. I wish my team still played in a raucous dump.
emily: The beer cans were definitely less weird of an item to toss than plastic rats.
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neil: But more dangerous.
terrence.doyle: But tastier.
neil: So there’s pros and cons, LOL.
emily: Islanders missed the opportunity to start a fish sticks-tossing tradition back when they wore the fisherman jerseys.
neil: Such a missed opportunity.
terrence.doyle: The worst jersey in league history?
neil: No, the Wild Wing ones existed.
emily: Excuse me, those were both fantastic.
emily: And they both featured companion mascots!
terrence.doyle: The ’90s was a miserable decade for jerseys, damn.
neil: That’s my childhood you’re insulting right now…
terrence.doyle: And my own.
Lest we forget Pooh Bear.
neil: Ooooof. OK, you’re right.
emily: Nah, these were all great. Stupid, but great.
Pooh Bear looked … sad? Concerned? Like, he’s looking at a campsite with so many delicious lunches tucked away in coolers, but he’s being chained up by Jeremy Jacobs and can’t access all of those delicious lunches.
neil: Meth Bear > Pooh Bear
emily: That is the correct take.
terrence.doyle: Again, I have a version of meth bear forever painted on my arm. Best ever B’s logo.
neil: Anyway! Back to the Lightning and Isles, LOL.
After so much griping from the rest of the NHL about Kucherov rejoining Tampa Bay for the playoffs and not counting against their razor-thin salary cap margin, the irony of him potentially being unavailable for Game 7 after a crosscheck he suffered early in Game 6 is not lost on anybody. But as Tampa coach Jon Cooper said, “If you’re fortunate enough to win the game, it makes for a hell of a story.”
So if he doesn’t play, is this a fair ending to the Kucherov Cap Saga? If they win, it’s just proof they’re a great team anyway; if they lose, well, the hockey gods do provide justice in the end?
terrence.doyle: They were the best team in hockey anyway, right?
They were dominant without him for 56 games. We should reasonably expect them to be so again. And if he doesn’t play and they’re not, we’re gonna be talking about one of the great dynasties that wasn’t.
As good as Vegas and Colorado and Washington and Boston have been over the past three years, the Bolts are different gravy. As my least favorite musician Meat Loaf once said, two out of three ain’t bad. But one out of three? It’s mathematically less good.
neil: “my least favorite musician” 😂
terrence.doyle: The way my mother listened to “Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell.” Only thing I heard in the car from 1993 to 1997. Pure misery. That on top of all of the bad jerseys.
emily: On one hand, I don’t think missing Kucherov in the final game really matters. Like Terrence said, they were already the best team in hockey without him. But if they were to lose, I think it’d be a very handy explanation for them to have for losing a series in which they completely obliterated the other team 8-0 a few games prior.
neil: Although nobody will feel sorry for them under that circumstance, haha.
All right, let’s close things up by looking ahead to the Stanley Cup final. Here’s the championship picture as we know it right now, according to our Elo odds:
What the Stanley Cup picture currently looks like
Odds of making and winning the Stanley Cup Final per Elo ratings, as well as current rating and league rank
|Team||Elo Rating||Rank||Make Final||Win Cup|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||1610||1||59%||43%|
|New York Islanders||1568||5||41||26|
We know the Canadiens are in the final already, but which matchup for them do you think would be more compelling — Tampa Bay or New York?
terrence.doyle: The Isles are the team they’re more likely to beat, IMO. I’m basing that mostly on the fact that they’ll have the better goaltending in that scenario.
emily: Screw it, let the weird season be weird. Let’s see Canadiens-Islanders.
neil: Yeah, I’m kinda torn between the matchup that gives Montreal the chance to pull an even bigger upset (Bolts) or the one that gives them a better probability of actually winning and ending Canada’s Cup drought (Islanders).
(The Cup drought THEY started, or at least they were the last team to win before it started)
terrence.doyle: Neil, is there a quick way to figure out if Habs versus Isles would be the worst Cup matchup in terms of preseason Elo in, uh, forever?
neil: I don’t think it would be just because the Islanders ranked fourth in preseason Elo — remember, they have been a good team! They lost the conference final last year in six to a stacked Tampa team.
The Habs, on the other hand…
terrence.doyle: Yeah, that’s fair. I guess I’m putting a lot of weight on the Habs here.
The Isles are just so grimy, I forget that they’re also good! The Isles feel very ’90s Devils
neil: Montreal has the 18th-lowest preseason Elo of any finalist in the post-Original Six era.
terrence.doyle: So not awful awful but not great.
neil: But more importantly, they have the third-lowest end-of-regular-season Elo of any finalist in that span.
Montreal is one of history’s most improbable finalists
Among eventual Stanley Cup finalists, the 20 teams with the lowest end-of-regular-season Elo ratings in the post-Original Six era (1968-2021)
|Year||Team||Preseason||End of Reg Season||Won?|
|1968||St. Louis Blues||1380||1389|
|1969||St. Louis Blues||1419||1475|
|1991||Minnesota North Stars||1481||1484|
|2018||Vegas Golden Knights||1380||1488|
|2003||Mighty Ducks of Anaheim||1466||1499|
|1993||Los Angeles Kings||1509||1499|
|1970||St. Louis Blues||1499||1512|
|1981||Minnesota North Stars||1512||1513|
|1979||New York Rangers||1485||1522|
|2012||New Jersey Devils||1495||1524|
That’s what really sets them apart.
terrence.doyle: Oh, wow
Go … Habs?
neil: It bears mentioning that almost all of those teams did not win the Cup. But the Habs have been the exception to hockey’s rules all postseason long.
emily: And whatever team they face will be the exception to Canada’s quarantine rules.