The NHL has played through its divisional brackets and now we’ve arrived at the final four. It’s a stranger final four than we’re used to, as there’s no traditional "conference finals” this year thanks to the league’s temporary pandemic realignment. Instead, the final four teams have been re-seeded based on how many points they earned during the regular season, with the No. 1 seed (Vegas) taking on the No. 4 seed (Montreal) and the No. 2 seed (Tampa Bay) taking on the No. 3 seed (Islanders).
It’s important to remember that, due to the realignment, none of these teams have faced each other yet this season ... but they’re about to get real familiar.
On the Clarence S. Campbell side (yes, the league is still handing out conference trophies even though it initially said it wouldn’t), we have the Golden Knights and Canadiens. It’s an odd matchup of cross-conference squads, and it’s also the NHL’s oldest team and the NHL’s newest team going head-to-head. (Sorry, Seattle, but you don’t count yet.)
This showdown is seen as a massive mismatch, as the betting market has the Golden Knights (-500) as HUGE favorites against Montreal. Still, despite what the handicappers might say, we know that anything can happen in the NHL playoffs. The unpredictability and chaos is half the beauty of the thing.
Game 1 is Monday (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN). So let’s take a glance at each team and identify how they got here, what they’re good at, what they’re not so good at and how they can win. At the end of it all, I’ll put my reputation on the line and deliver a prediction for the books.
How they got here: They took advantage of the Maple Leafs puking all over themselves (again) and erased a 3-1 series deficit in the first round. Then they easily swept a Winnipeg Jets team in four games.
What are their strengths? Bringing different identities and countering their opponent’s preferred style of play. They can bring a mix of physicality, skill and structure. Most importantly, they’ve been getting great goaltending from Carey Price this postseason. Price has a .935 save percentage through two rounds and ranks second only to Tampa's Andrei Vasilevskiy with 5.57 goals saved above average. The Habs’ penalty kill also has a 90 percent kill rate this postseason, which is tops among all teams.
What are their weaknesses? The Canadiens are not exactly a high-powered offensive team. They have some nice developing talent, but they lack true star power, especially when it comes to goal scoring. They have the lowest shooting percentage of any remaining team (6 percent). They’re a pretty average defensive team with some liabilities on the back end that may come back to bite them against deeper units. They can have trouble keeping up with a higher pace of play.
How they can win the series: They’ll need to respond well to Vegas’ pressure and find ways to create offense, likely via the rush and by crashing the net. They need to slow the pace and protect the puck as well as they did against Winnipeg. They will likely lose the 5v5 battle, but they may be able to win on special teams. But above all else, Price will likely need to stand on his head and play at an MVP level.
Vegas Golden Knights
How they got here: They gutted out a series win over the Wild in seven games, then impressed in a highly entertaining six-game series against the Avalanche.
What are their strengths? Pressure and pace. The Golden Knights’ greatest strength is the ability to pressure the puck in all three zones. They have an intense forecheck that is capable of disrupting even the most explosive of offenses, as we saw in their series against Colorado. They can keep up with an intense pace and convert in transition. They have star power but also a deep roster that can contribute, top to bottom. Marc-Andre Fleury has looked unbeatable at points this postseason, and he has a .923 save percentage, including an .893 mark in high-danger situations (tops in the playoffs).
What are their weaknesses? Consistency can be an issue at times, and special teams haven’t been great. The power play ranks last among active teams (14.3 percent conversion rate), and the penalty kill ranks second-to-last (71.4 percent).
How they can win the series: By smothering Montreal’s already weak offensive group and playing a faster game than it can handle. Keep things to 5v5 and showcase a discrepancy in roster talent.
Golden Knights in 4. The Canadiens were up against the ropes in the first round and practically begging Toronto to put them out of their misery. They came off the ropes and shattered the Leafs’ hopes and dreams (something I’ll always cherish), but then they lucked into an easy draw against the Jets (without Mark Scheifele, no less). They deserve credit for getting to this point, but I don’t buy into the “team of destiny” thing. If it weren’t for the strange alignment format, I don’t think the Habs would be here. It’s been a nice run, but the Golden Knights are a different beast. I expect the wake-up call to be swift and brutal.