The Conference Finals are set for the 2020 NHL Playoffs after the New York Islanders shut out the Philadelphia Flyers 4-0 in Game 7 on Saturday night. They will play the Tampa Bay Lightning (who flew into Edmonton on Saturday) in the Eastern Conference Finals starting on Monday.

For the Western Conference Finals, both the Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars won their Game 7’s on Friday and will start their series Sunday, aka tonight!

The Toronto bubble is officially closed after tonight, having completed six weeks of zero COVID-19 cases. For what it was, it was a success. The Playoffs now move to Edmonton for (hopefully) the final four (ish) weeks of the NHL Playoffs. If both the third and fourth rounds go seven games each, with teams getting one days rest between games, we can expect the Cup Finals to finish on October 3rd, with the NHL Draft on the sixth and Free Agency on the ninth. All of that is contingent on no stoppages in games, of course.

Dallas Stars vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Game 1: 8pm, Sunday, September 6th. CBC, SN, NBCSN, TVAS.

I think this is going to be a really great series between two talented, veteran-laden teams with great goaltenders (most of the time), loads of underrated scorers, and two rising defense stars in Shea Theodore and Miro Heiskanen.

The offensive matchup between the Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov line against defensive magician Mark Stone and his shutdown line with Max Pacioretty and Chandler Stevenson is going to be really fun to watch. The Stars signed Joe Pavelski last summer to a major contract that probably won’t look too great in a few years, but for right now, they have him anchoring a second line that should go up against the William Karlsson line with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault that’s been around since Day One of the Golden Knights era.

From watching both teams this playoffs, it’s really impressed me how few blatant mistakes these teams make. Goals come from consistency in a system and honest expected goals eventually coming good. The Leafs can really learn a lot from these teams who are three rounds deeper than they got this year. All of these bets on shooting percentage benders and luck just doesn’t work when it can’t be implemented consistently all throughout the lineup.

Prediction: my heart says Vegas, but my brain says Dallas. Dallas in seven it is.

New York Islanders vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Game 1: 8pm, Monday, September 7th. CBC, SN, NBCSN, TVAS.

The Bolts have had about six days of rest since beating the Boston Bruins in five games. They lost Nikita Kucherov to an injury in Game 5, but there’s a good chance both he and Steven Stamkos will be in the lineup for Game 1 against the Islanders next to Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, and top scorer Ondrej Palat. *Knock knock* “Who’s there?” “Superstar talent still in the playoffs.”

On the Islanders side, they don’t have John Tavares, and no matter how much their fans whine, they’d have a lot better chance of beating the Lightning with him than not. Mathew Barzal is an incredible transition player, and Brock Nelson might be the most underrated player in the league (because his current rating is: who?), but they are pound-for-pound the second best team in this series.

The Lightning have shown the ability (despite a poor power play that has been sans Stamkos) to overcome defensive trap teams, largely because they can score from any of their three forward lines and they’ve had a really strong goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. The Lightning have had the practice, they have the depth, and they aren’t taking anything for granted after half a decade of playoff heartbreak.

Prediction: Bolts in five. And the Cup, too.

Various Hockey Branches

So with the Conference Finals beginning today, families of the four teams are supposed to enter the bubble as per the NHL’s Return to Play. However, there is a travel ban for Americans entering Canada so US families of NHL players haven’t been allowed in. Awkward.

Pierre McGuire can single-handedly bankrupt any hockey team if he’s their GM, even the Leafs, but especially the Arizona Coyotes. As fun as it would be to have the worst GM in the league since Paul Fenton making trades, I’m genuinely worried they’ll fold before Nick Hjalmarsson gets traded for Pierre Engvall.

Leafs prospect Kalle Loponen is a very shot-happy defenseman, especially on the power play. He didn’t get much of a chance in the OHL, but on Karpat’s U20 team, he’s clearly having a lot of fun. I wonder if he stays there the whole year.

Another potential Leafs defenseman in Europe is Mikko Lehtonen in the KHL. The Russian league has made player tracking data available to the public, meaning we’re getting lots of unrefined data that means nothing on their website! Is 92.7% passing high? Average? Awful? Is more distance travelled good or actually bad when it comes to scoring goals? I can’t wait to put more thought into this after there’s some proper research and analysis done into it.