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BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: The Final Four

Friday, September 11th
BIRD'S-EYE VIEW: The Final Four

BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: The Final Four

Blog #25 – September 11, 2020

by John Peterson

Okay. I’m not too proud to admit it. My blog featuring five predictions for the “Stanley Hub Playoffs” was a dumpster fire. I’m embarrassed.

A Canadian team did not and cannot win the Stanley Cup. That drought will enter a 28th season next year. More specifically, the Edmonton Oilers, whom I boldly predicted to win it all, were promptly escorted out of the postseason during the Qualifying Round in their own barn by the lowest seed in the tournament, the Chicago Blackhawks.

I still struggle to admit the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins, last season’s Stanley Cup Final combatants, had a “Stanley Cup hangover” given the circumstances. However, the Blues never looked comfortable and suffered a first round upset at the hands of the upstart Vancouver Canucks. The Bruins ran into a buzz saw in the second round, bowing out to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As much as it pains me, let’s talk about my Cinderella picks. Pittsburgh and Nashville didn’t even make it out of the Qualifying Round, much less a deep run through the playoffs. Toronto disappointed yet again, suffering an opening round loss to Columbus. Why did I think this was the year their talented group would finally pull it all together?

Vegas proved me wrong. I thought surely they’d be victims of an early trip back to Sin City. And I owe K-Wings Director of Game Operations Michael McFadden an apology. I had no faith in his beloved Philadelphia Flyers. They put up an honorable fight, losing in seven games to the New York Islanders after claiming the number-one seed in the round robin. The Broadstreet Bullies were one win away from the Eastern Conference Final.

Chicago didn’t win the draft lottery. They weren’t even eligible. The Blackhawks stunned Edmonton in the first round, opening the door for the New York Rangers’ ping pong ball getting chosen in the Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes.

It has been a struggle, you guys.

I went 1-7 in the Qualifying Round. Thanks, Carolina.

My First Round predictions garnered a 3-5 record. Tremendous. 4-12 after two rounds. I should stick to my day job.

But let’s give a shout out to the Canucks. The last Canadian team standing (and the Kalamazoo Wings NHL affiliate) turned a lot of heads up in the playoff bubble. Vancouver is young, talented, and has a bright future ahead. For a second, I didn’t think Thatcher Demko was human and he was going to carry the Canucks past the mighty Golden Knights on his shoulders.

Luckily for my battered ego, I went 3-1 in the Second Round, correctly picking Vegas, Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders to advance to the Conference Finals. Somehow Dallas keeps proving me wrong. I really thought Colorado was the team to beat in the West.

One thing is certain: there has been no shortage of entertainment. Hockey fans have been spoiled by spectacular goals, ten-bell saves and everything else you’d expect from the quest for the ultimate prize. The Stanley Cup Playoffs have been outstanding, even without the home-ice advantage and tens of thousands of screaming fans.

Let’s take a look at the final four teams. One of these squads will live out a lifelong dream of hoisting the Stanley Cup over their heads in a few weeks. At the time this blog was published, Tampa Bay led New York two games to none in their best-of-seven series. Dallas stunned Vegas in overtime last night in game three. The Stars now lead that series two games to one.

DALLAS STARS

We’ll start with those Stars. Many, including myself pegged Dallas as the weakest of the four round robin teams entering the playoffs. Colorado and St. Louis looked dangerously good in the regular season and Vegas seemed to be pulling it all together.

The Stars nearly lost every game in the round robin, edging the Blues in a shootout of the final game to claim the number-3 seed. From there, a Joe Pavelski hat trick in game four of the First Round sparked three straight wins to help Dallas dispose of the Calgary Flames in six games.

A back-and-forth, high-scoring Second Round series against the Colorado Avalanche went the distance. The Stars saw a 3-1 series lead evaporate, before finishing the job in game seven thanks to a surprising hat trick from rookie Joel Kiviranta.

Goaltender Anton Khudobin has been steady and reliable in place of a banged-up Ben Bishop, and he’ll need to continue to be for Dallas to finish the task at hand.

Interim Head Coach Rick Bowness was promoted early in the regular season when the team dismissed Head Coach Jim Montgomery. His team’s performance in these playoffs might just force Dallas to remove the interim tag. Setting a precident, St. Louis pulled of a Stanley Cup championship run last year with then-interim coach Craig Berube.

Last Trip to the Conference Finals:  2008Last Trip to the Stanley Cup Final:  2000Stanley Cups:  1 (1999)Players with Stanley Cups:  Corey Perry (Anaheim, 2007); Tyler Seguin (Boston, 2011)

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

27 years removed from their last trip to the conference finals, the New York Islanders used a structured and disciplined brand of hockey to become one of the last four teams standing. The Islanders entered postseason play with the seventh best record in the Eastern Conference and needed four games to erase the Florida Panthers in the Qualifying Round.

Underdogs entering their First Round series against Washington, the Islanders shocked the hockey world by making quick work of Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals in five games. Then in the Second Round, New York saw a 3-1 series lead slip away against the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers, only to stamp a 4-0 victory in the deciding game to become the only team from the Qualifying Round to make the conference finals.

New York has been led by a cast of characters, including Anthony Beauvillier’s eight goals, Josh Bailey’s 17 points, and a serviceable goaltending rotation between Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss. Brock Nelson has provided clutch goals and young superstar Mathew Barzal has made his presence known, even overcoming a few unlucky sticks and pucks to the face.

The Islanders might not play the most exciting hockey around, but you have to respect the job Barry Trotz has done since taking over in 2018-19, fresh of a Stanley Cup win as coach of the Capitals. He’s one of the best in the business. Never count these Islanders out.

Last Trip to the Conference Finals:  1993Last Trip to the Stanley Cup Final:  1984Stanley Cups:  4 (1980, 1981, 1982, 1983)Players with Stanley Cups:  Johnny Boychuk (Boston, 2011); Tom Kuhnhackl (Pittsburgh, 2016, 2017); Andrew Ladd (Carolina, 2006 and Chicago, 2010)

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

One year removed from an embarrassing first round sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets following a President’s Trophy regular season, the Lightning have been all business in their 2020 redemption run. This feels like the team to beat right now, and I’m not sure there’s a team left in the dance who has what it takes. For comparison, this Tampa team and their story aligns similarly with the Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team who followed a first round upset loss to a 16 seed with a National Championship the following year at the NCAA Tournament.

Tampa Bay finished second in the round robin part of the postseason, which provided a rematch with a Blue Jackets team that looked much different than they did in 2019. After a five-overtime win in game one and a minor hiccup in game two, the Lightning swept the last three games to win the series.

More impressively, Tampa then knocked out the defending Eastern Conference Champion Boston Bruins with relative ease, taking their Second Round series four games to one. At the time of print, the Lightning used a whopping 8-2 win in game one, followed by a tiebreaking goal in the final 10 seconds of game two to snag an early 2-0 series advantage over the Islanders.

In an early race for possible Conn Smythe candidates, Brayden Point’s eight goals and 23 points looks awfully good so far, but Andrei Vasilevskiy’s 12 wins and .932 save percentage is tough to overlook. Head Coach Jon Cooper has this Tampa squad firing on all cylinders and if they can go all the way, Yanni Gourde would become the second K-Wings alum to win the Stanley Cup in as many years.

Last Trip to the Conference Finals:  2018Last Trip to the Stanley Cup Final:  2015Stanley Cups:  1 (2004)Players with Stanley Cups:  Pat Maroon (St. Louis, 2019)

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Can we start by acknowledging the job George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon have done molding a contender all three years of Vegas’ existence? The Golden Knights rattled off 13 postseason wins during their inaugural season, falling in the Stanley Cup Final to the Washington Capitals. Last year, Vegas lost a heartbreaking seventh game to the San Jose Sharks thanks to a controversial five-minute major penalty late in that game. Here they are again, back in the Conference Final.

The Knights dominated round robin play to earn the top seed in the West and a First Round matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks. While each game was tighter than many expected, Vegas eliminated Chicago in just five games including three one-goal games.

In a somewhat surprising turn of events, Robin Lehner snatched the starting job away from Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes. Lehner has been outstanding all postseason, but his three shutouts in the Second Round against the Vancouver Canucks made all the difference in a series that went seven games. Vegas led that series three games to one, but the Canucks charged back to even things up. In the deciding game, Shea Theodore broke a scoreless third period tie to lead the Golden Knights back to the Conference Final.

Similarly to Dallas, Vegas also made a midseason coaching change. Rather than promoting from within, the Golden Knights replaced Gerard Gallant with former Sharks and Devils coach Peter DeBoer in January.

Last Trip to the Conference Finals:  2018Last Trip to the Stanley Cup Final:  2018Stanley Cups:  N/APlayers with Stanley Cups:  Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh, 2009, 2016, 2017); Alec Martinez (Los Angeles, 2012, 2014); Chandler Stephenson (Washington, 2018)

PICKS

Now I realize my track record this postseason has been less than stellar, so take these predictions with a grain of salt. I also realize this blog is coming out midway through the conference finals, but rest assured, these picks were made the day the round started.

Further proving that fact, I picked Vegas to beat Dallas in a seven-game, knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out fight. This Tweet went public as the Stars were closing out a win in game one. Timeliness has never been my strong suit.

I also have Tampa Bay defeating New York in six games, meaning the Islanders will need to find a way to steal a couple of games after dropping the first two of the series in very different fashions.

Even amidst the carnage of my pre-playoff predictions, I picked the Lightning to reach the Stanley Cup Final. In that blog I had them losing to Edmonton. Oops.

This time around, Tampa is taking home the Stanley Cup for the second time in franchise history, edging the Golden Knights in six games. Their leader, Steven Stamkos, has missed the entire postseason thus far, but the Lightning haven’t missed a beat. They’ll hoist the Cup from the ice at Rogers Place in Edmonton, and Yanni Gourde follows in Jordan Binnington’s footsteps by joining the Kalamazoo-to-Stanley Cup Champion pipeline in back-to-back seasons.

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Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson twice weekly. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to jpeterson@kwings.com. Enjoy!

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