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.
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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.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.