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What To Expect In The Weird Stanley Cup Semifinals

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Well, we have a final four in the Stanley Cup playoffs — and it’s not entirely who we might have expected going in. No, it’s not surprising to see the Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights here, though it’s sad to say goodbye to the Colorado Avalanche (our preseason favorite) after a stunning collapse out West. But both the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens were unlikely semifinal picks when last we chatted; now they’re each just an upset away from the Cup final.

So let’s break down all of the possibilities ahead for this quartet of teams on the path to the Stanley Cup. But first, I’ll give us a moment to pay respects to the teams we’ve lost this past round: The Winnipeg Jets, whose best player got himself insta-suspended at the end of Game 1 for what ended up being the rest of the series … the Carolina Hurricanes, another one of my failed hipster Stanley Cup picks … the Avs, who could have given us so much more time together with Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar ЁЯШв… and of course, your Boston Bruins.

terrence.doyle (Terrence Doyle, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I am sad.

terrence has left the chat

Seriously though, it feels like the Bruins missed a golden opportunity to get back to another Cup final. That core isn’t getting any younger, and while the window may not have slammed shut, it would be tough to slip a single sheet of paper through the crack right now.

neil: That was also one of those series we’ve often talked about, where the hot goalie can change everything. Semyon Varlamov was that guy.

(And Tuukka Rask wasn’t.)

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terrence.doyle: The Bruins outplayed the Isles in terms of expected goals in four of the six games. Of course, expected goals don’t always equal real goals, and Varlamov was the reason why.

emily (Emily Scherer, designer): The Bruins defense wasn’t helping out Tuukka, either, (nor were whatever injuries that I’m sure will be revealed on breakup day).

terrence.doyle: Yeah, it seems he has a torn labrum and needs hip surgery. I thought Tuukka was FINE, fwiw. Doesn’t help when the guys in front of you spoon-feed the other team, like, seven goals.

neil: True, and it’s not like our friend the Swagman did so hot in that game Rask got yanked from.

terrence.doyle: Yeah, he gave up a softie early on — that was a save you expected him (and Rask) to make. And it hurt the Bs, because they lost that one by a single goal.

Anyway, it’ll take me a while to get over the fact that the Bs v. Habs Cup final dream is dead.

neil: That would have been such an amazing shout, Terrence. Who would have guessed that the half that came true was Montreal, not Boston?

terrence.doyle: Right?! I honestly think this Canadiens team misses the playoffs in a season that is not deeply weird and defined by realignment. Alas, here we are…

emily: The weird season is weird.

terrence.doyle: To close the loop on the Bs, I want to be on record saying they should re-sign Rask, who is the best goalie in franchise history and one of the best goalies in the history of the NHL. It feels weird to have to type this, but a not-insignificant cohort of Boston fans hate the guy. Which, uhhhh, yeah, they’re all very wrong for doing that.

emily: Re-sign Rask, and then find a time machine to go back to 2020 and not lose nearly all of their core defensemen.

terrence.doyle: Not re-signing Zdeno Chára was a decision.

emily: And re-signing Kevan Miller was a decision.

terrence.doyle: Haha, yes it was, Emily. Yes it was. (I like the dude, but he’s always hurt.)

emily: Gotta run the stats to see how many days Miller has spent on the IR list, and how close it compares to Adam McQuaid.

terrence.doyle: I get not bringing back Torey Krug. He was going to be expensive. He didn’t even have a particularly good 2020-21 season with the Blues, whereas Matt Grzelcyk had a borderline elite season with Boston (two mistakes in Game 6 aside). But letting Chára walk feels very bad now.

neil: It’s definitely going to be an interesting offseason in Boston.

But enough looking back at teams that were eliminated. Let’s look forward to the Stanley Cup Semifinals matchups (with team rankings by regular-season points):

No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 18 Montreal Canadiens

Elo’s favorite: Golden Knights (77 percent)

On paper, this seems like a huge mismatch: Vegas, the league’s best team (by adjusted scoring differential) during the regular season, against Montreal, the worst playoff team by far in terms of regular-season resume. And yet, why don’t we ask the Maple Leafs and Jets how that went for them? So do you guys think the Canadiens have yet another upset in them here?

terrence.doyle: I do not.

Vegas just won four straight against the team everyone on the planet assumed was going to steamroll its way to the Cup.

emily: I don’t think so, but the weird season has proven itself deeply weird.

terrence.doyle: Idk, maybe I’m wrong, maybe the ghost of Rocket Richard is with them, guiding pucks into nets and choking refs out in hotel lobbies. But I just think VGK is too much for this admittedly resilient and fun Habs team. 

neil: The things in Montreal’s favor have been Carey Price playing like vintage Carey Price (no small thing!) and the depth of the contributions they’ve gotten. Ten different Habs scored goals and nine had at least 3 points in the four-game sweep of Winnipeg.

terrence.doyle: That’s a lotta Habs!

It feels dirty to say this, but I love Carey Price and I wouldn’t care if they won it. Is he our hot goalie? He’s already achieved legend status in Montreal, so can you imagine what this would do for his legacy?

neil: If Patrick Roy is Saint Patrick, he could be Pope Carey.

I will say that the Canadiens were also a better team according to the possession metrics during the regular season than their record gave them credit for. But Vegas just finished dispatching the best possession team in recent memory.

terrence.doyle: It’s tantalizing. I still think they lose in five. VGK had a little hiccup, but they look real, real scary now.

The Habs are, remarkably, coming up on 30 years without a cup. Which of course makes me feel very old, because I vividly remember their last Cup.

neil: That was a fun series. Gretzky, Marty McSorley’s illegal stick, Patrick Roy wins the Conn Smythe. Good times.

emily: I’m sure it was!

(I wouldn’t know!)

terrence.doyle: ЁЯШВ

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neil: Speaking of feeling old.

OK, so it sounds like we all are picking Vegas to win — now let’s pivot to the other semifinal matchup:

No. 8 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 12 New York Islanders

Elo’s favorite: Lightning (62 percent)

A reader wrote in after our last chat, (rightly) observing that we didn’t mention the Islanders among our playoff surprises. And after another win, this time over the favored Bruins — again, sorry y’all — the Isles cannot be ignored. But Tampa Bay is very much looking like back-to-back championship material after casting aside the Canes in just five games. What can New York do to avoid a similar fate against a Lightning team that is reminding us of how great they can be?

emily: If the Islanders can just harness all of the remaining power of Nassau Coliseum, they may stand a chance.

terrence.doyle: That crowd was humming. What a building. I feel very happy for (and equally jealous of) that fan base right now. The Isles have been mostly miserable since the end of their dynasty (which was one of the two or three best teams in NHL history, tbf), so it’s kinda cool to witness their rise. That said, I do not think they’ll beat the Bolts, who look scary again (even if they maybe coulda and shoulda lost that first-round series to the Panthers).

A lot of folks are in their feelings about the salary-cap stuff (I refuse to call it a cap circumvention because the rules were agreed upon in the most recent CBA, and therefore what they’re doing is completely aboveboard), but like … what team wouldn’t do what Tampa is doing?

neil: The grapes are still sour for Dougie Hamilton.

terrence.doyle: As a Bruins fan: No comment on Dougie Hamilton and his always-sour grapes.

neil: Haha

Well, both the Bolts and the Isles are better than they were during most of the regular season anyway. Tampa got Nikita Kucherov (and Steven Stamkos) back, and New York added Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac at the trade deadline. While Zajac hasn’t produced much on the stat sheet in the playoffs, Palmieri was their leading scorer against Boston. 

Two Tampa Bay Lightning players skating on the ice

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terrence.doyle: Palmieri, aka The Bridge and Tunnel Brawler, was magnificent against the Bruins. Zajac didn’t put up big numbers, but he did all of those little things — active stick, getting in passing lanes, blocking shots, mucking in the corners and in front of the net — you need to do to win in the playoffs. Amazing deadline acquisitions. 

But the more I watch and write about Kucherov, the more I’m convinced he’s the best player on the planet. Is it a luxury to be able to introduce such a talent just as the playoffs begin? Of course! Are the Bolts cheating? No! Everyone needs to relax.

If they win, he probably gets the Conn Smythe. Which … has there ever been a Conn Smythe winner who played zero regular-season games?

neil: Oooh, that’s a great question, Terrence.

Ken Dryden won the 1971 Conn Smythe after playing only six regular-season games. He actually won the Conn Smythe before winning the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year! 

terrence.doyle: I’ve heard that factoid several times, and I’m always blown away by it. And now I’m spiraling down the “Bruins drafted him and traded him” rabbit hole. 

neil: It always comes back to the Bruins.

terrence.doyle: I am ill.

(I can go down a 2015 draft rabbit hole wrt Mathew Barzal if you’d like, too…)

neil: (Oh, god.)

In any event, I am excited for this series, because it does seem more evenly matched than Vegas-Montreal, and I always love strength-versus-strength matchups like Tampa Bay’s offense against the Islander goal-prevention corps

emily: This is going to be a fun one.

terrence.doyle: The Isles’ defense is weird because they’re giving up a fair number of shots (37.7 per game during the playoffs) and more high-danger scoring chances than they create, but they get excellent goaltending so… ЁЯд╖‍тЩВя╕П

It could be a battle of that excellent goaltending vs. Tampa’s elite shooters.

emily: It might not be pretty, but so far it’s worked.

neil: Two good playoff goaltenders (beyond Varlamov, Ilya Sorokin was great in round one) are better than one, I guess.

terrence.doyle: If the New York Saints show up and don’t take too many penalties, they could be all right. If the Long Island Sinners show up, they could be in trouble: Tampa is scoring on more than 40 percent of its power plays in the playoffs, lol.

neil: Whatever happens, it’s going to be cool to see the winner of this inevitably go up against Montreal in the final.

terrence.doyle: ЁЯдг

emily: ЁЯЩГ

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Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Emily Scherer was FiveThirtyEight’s senior designer.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.