Ranking the potential Stanley Cup Final matchups

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We started with 16 teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and are now down to the remaining four teams.

There are a couple of teams that we probably expected to be here (Tampa Bay and Vegas) and a couple that are a bit of a surprise (Islanders and Canadiens).

Now that the semifinals are set (Tampa Bay vs. New York; Vegas vs. Montreal) we know that there are four potential Stanley Cup Final matchups that could take place a couple of weeks from now. Because of the one-year playoff format and divisional alignment there is the potential to see an all Eastern Conference Cup Final as three of the remaining teams all call the East home in a normal year. That certainly adds some potential intrigue to the final two rounds of the postseason, and could give us a very unique championship round.

Now, we get to discuss which ones we want to see the most.

Let’s get to the rankings.

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Lightning vs. Golden Knights

This is easy because it is simply the two best teams remaining. They are the two best teams on paper, and they are the two best teams on the ice.

Tampa Bay is the defending Stanley Cup champions and looking to become just the third different organization to repeat as champions since 1990 (Pittsburgh has done it twice; Detroit did it once). In terms of playing style, talent, and just overall intrigue this would be the best hockey matchup of them all.

Vegas finished the season tied with Colorado with the most points in the NHL, and just ripped off four consecutive wins against the Avalanche in a very impressive (and convincing) Second Round series win. The Golden Knights are also trying to return to the Cup Final for the second time in the first four years of their existence. They have built an immediate powerhouse in the NHL and have a chance to cement their status as one of the league’s elite franchises. Nothing would do that more than a Stanley Cup win over the defending champions.

2. Lightning vs. Canadiens

This is one of the potential all-Eastern Conference matchups.

Is it the second best pure hockey matchup? You could certainly argue either way on that. But it definitely has a lot of intrigue.

For one, it is a Cup Final matchup that you could only see this season with this format. That is exciting.

It would also give the Canadiens an opportunity to do something the organization has never done before and win the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl, which is being awarded to the winner of the Canadiens-Golden Knights series.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 Third Round schedule, TV info]

It would also continue what has been a rather unbelievable run throughout the playoffs for a team that began as probably the biggest underdogs in the entire field. When the playoffs began the Canadiens had the 18th best record in the NHL and were an afterthought in the Stanley Cup discussion. Especially when they faced a 3-1 series deficit against a Toronto team that was expected to come out of the North Division bracket.

All the Canadiens have done since then is win seven games in a row to complete a stunning First Round upset of the Maple Leafs, and then sweep the Jets. Following that up by getting through Vegas would be quite a storybook season.

It would also feature another epic goaltending matchup between Andrei Vasilevskiy and Carey Price.

3. Islanders vs. Golden Knights

If the Islanders get here it will mean they beat the Penguins, Bruins, and Lightning in consecutive rounds, which would easily be the most impressive run of any team in the playoffs. It would also be another challenge to see if Barry Trotz, the Islanders’ defense, and their goaltending could shut down and frustrate another of the league’s best teams. They keep doing it every postseason.

The play on the ice? It would be an intriguing contrast in styles with Vegas’ offense going against the Islanders’ defense. But it would also be wildly exciting off the ice with two of the league’s best home crowds being featured prominently.

What better way to close out Nassau Coliseum than with a Stanley Cup Final.

[Related: X-Factors For Stanley Cup Final Semifinalists]

4. Canadiens vs. Islanders

It would certainly be the most unexpected matchup.

The Islanders and Canadiens finished the regular season with the 12th and 18th best records in the league, respectively, and were both the fourth seeds in their own divisions.

In terms of playing style, it probably would not be the most exciting of the potential matchups given that they also ranked 17th and 21st in the league in goals per game.  But it would be unique for the East vs. East aspect, and because of the grueling path that both teams would have taken to get here, pulling off three consecutive upsets each along the way.

It would also feature two of the NHL’s greatest dynasties from the past facing off in their first ever Stanley Cup Final as they both try to win their first championship in decades.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced Friday that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

Rasmus Sandin
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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.

Stars expect to open camp without unsigned scorer Jason Robertson

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FRISCO, Texas — Young 40-goal scorer Jason Robertson is expected to miss the start of training camp for the Dallas Stars because the team and the restricted free agent haven’t agreed on a new contract.

General manager Jim Nill said there’s been steady, ongoing negotiations over the last couple of weeks with Robertson and his representatives. Nill wouldn’t say what has kept the two sides from reaching a deal, adding there have been “very good discussions.”

The Stars, with new coach Pete DeBoer, open camp Thursday in Cedar Park, Texas, at the home of their AHL team. They have three days of work there before returning to North Texas for their exhibition opener at home on Monday night. They open the regular season Oct. 13 at Nashville.

“I think he’s disappointed he’s not at camp, we are too,” Nill said before the team departed for the Austin area. “I think it’s very important for a younger player and as you mentioned, the (new) coaching staff. … We do have some time on our side, but we wish he gets here as soon as he can.”

Robertson had a base salary of $750,000 last season, the end of a $2.775 million, three-year contract. He still has five more years before he has the opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent.

The left wing turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when he had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

A second-round draft pick by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. He had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

DeBoer said he looks forward to coaching Robertson, but that the forward’s absence won’t change his plans for camp.

“It doesn’t impact what I’m doing,” DeBoer said. “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here. So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Nill said the Stars are open to a long-term extension or a bridge contract for Robertson, who was part of the team’s top line last season with veteran Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz. They combined for 232 points, the second-most in franchise history for a trio.

“We’re open to anything. But other than that … I’m not going to negotiate through the media,” Nill said. “As I said, we’ve had good conversations. We’ll see where it goes.”