After a long, grueling, 56-game season and in-division playoffs, we’ve reached the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
The last team standings are Vegas, tied for the most standings points in the NHL; Montreal, the underdog of the North who took down top-seeded Toronto; New York, an Islanders squad that’s smothered two higher seeds; and Tampa Bay, the defending Stanley Cup champions.
All unique, all kind of predictable in their own way, and all with surprises as well.
Each team has had to win a series on road ice to make it. There’s no top seed left. So, they all have something to bring to the table that perhaps opponents weren’t ready for.
We’ll call those X-factors, the narrative-driven yet poignant winning element that could take one of these clubs to the Stanley Cup Final.
Here they are, in the final four, just like we all predicted. After storming through Toronto and Winnipeg, Vegas is going to be just a bit of a tougher opponent, probably.
The Golden Knights took down Colorado in a surprising six-game set, winning the last four. That’s a tougher opponent than the Canadiens have seen at any point this season, realistically.
So, what can the Canadiens use to take down the Golden Knights other than vibes and the power of friendship?
Carey Price. Not to cop out and use a goalie twice (stay tuned!) but Price is like, why the Canadiens are here. Yes Toronto was destined to falter in the First Round and Winnipeg wasn’t good, but Carey Price is playing at the level of his Vezina-contending years. His 1.97 playoff goals against is second in the playoffs behind just Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury.
Now that he’s playing a legitimate offense — no offense Maple Leafs — what does he look like? Can he keep up his Ken Dryden-ien run? Well, that’s an X-factor for you.
[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 schedule, TV info]
Vegas Golden Knights
For a team that finished tied with Colorado in points, perhaps the Golden Knights weren’t taken seriously enough. First, against the Wild (yeah I picked Minnesota too what about it) and then the Avalanche.
Yet, behind Marc-Andre Fleury and the longest run of ridiculously good transactions later, the Golden Knights are in the semis for the third time in their four-year existence.
Their opponent this time is a lot different than their Western foes; Montreal has “momentum,” if that can exist in the postseason, after sweeping Winnipeg and knocking off favorite-Toronto.
One of the fun little narratives here is Max Pacioretty. Formerly a member of the Canadiens, we all get to overreact and decide who won the trade based on this one series. How fun!
Despite missing time, Pacioretty led Vegas with 24 goals and has a point in all seven games of the postseason he’s played in.
In exchange in that deal, the Canadiens got Tomas Tatar and Nick Suzuki, who hadn’t played an NHL game yet. Suzuki is a part of things now in Montreal, scoring 41 points this year in 56 games and eight points in 11 playoff games.
I’m a sucker for narrative, so a Pacioretty X-factor is what to watch here.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The cap circumvention rules that come out of this season are gonna be something. Until then, here are the Lightning and their extra $18M, a series away from going back to the Stanley Cup Final.
What kind of X-factor can a team have that is a clear favorite, defending champion, and the best roster in the playoffs?
So, it’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. He’s the favorite to win the Vezina and most people know how dominant he is, but do we really acknowledge how dominant he is? For all the salary cap storylines and Brayden Point becoming the best player in the playoffs again, Vasilevskiy won the series against the Hurricanes.
Look at all the goalies left in the postseason; they’re the best goalies left. Vasilevskiy is the best of them. The Islanders can smother opponents offensively at times, and — while they could succeed on an injured Tuukka Rask in the Second Round — sometimes their own offense gets frustrated. It’s a solid recipe for Vasilevskiy to take the series on his own.
[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
New York Islanders
What a weird team, yet here they are again. The Islanders battered a really bad Tristan Jarry then handled a Bruins squad falling apart at the seams.
Where does that leave them with the Lightning? Other than good goaltending, they’re entirely opposite teams for the most part.
In the First Round, secondary scoring took advantage of Jarry’s flaws while the main offensive players were slumping. In the Second Round, the Mathew Barzal show began. The young center had a four-game point streak going before Game 6, and had six points in a three-game stretch in the series.
Another big series would take the pressure off some of the other scoring. Besides, Barzal is the face of the franchise and future and all that, so a strong performance would begin cementing his legacy with the Islanders.
He’s the most dangerous player with the highest offensive ceiling for the Islanders. For them to pull off the upset with the surging Lightning, he’s the guy to look to.
Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.