It’s time for the Stanley Cup Conference Finals.
In the East, the Tampa Bay Lightning face off against the New York Rangers, while the Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers battle for the Western Conference’s spot in the Cup Final.
With the action set to come thick and fast, staying ahead of the curve in the postseason is important. Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the NHL’s Conference Finals:
Stanley Cup: Conference Finals Schedule
- Game 1: Edmonton @ Colorado, Wednesday 1 June, 01:00
- Game 1: Tampa Bay @ NY Rangers, Thursday 2 June, 01:00
- Game 2: Edmonton @ Colorado, Friday 3 June, 01:00
- Game 2: Tampa Bay @ NY Rangers, Saturday 4 June, 01:00
- Game 3: Colorado @ Edmonton, Sunday 5 June, 01:00
- Game 3: NY Rangers @ Tampa Bay, Sunday 5 June, 20:00
- Game 4: Colorado @Edmonton, Tuesday 6 June, 01:00
- Game 4: NY Rangers @ Tampa Bay, Wednesday 7 June, 01:00
- Games 5-7 will be completed by Wednesday 15 June.
New York Rangers versus Tampa Bay Lightning
Gerard Gallant’s Rangers advanced to the Conference Finals by overcoming the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening two rounds of the playoffs, winning both series in Game 7.
After finishing the regular-season ranked second in the Metropolitan Division with a 52-24-6 record, the Rangers squeezed past Pittsburgh with an overtime win in the series decider. Igor Shesterkin was forced to stand on his head in round two, leading the team from Madison Square Garden to an upset of the Hurricanes.
Tampa Bay’s path to the Conference Finals was slightly less dramatic: they narrowly beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, before sweeping the Florida Panthers in the Atlantic Division Final.
Jon Cooper’s squad remain in the hunt for a threepeat and are favourites versus the Rangers despite entering the final four with an inferior regular-season record of 51-23-8.
Conn Smythe Trophy Candidates:
If you’re a fan of high-quality netminding, this is the series for you.
Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is back to his best after a run of so-so performances (by his lofty standards) versus the Leafs. Through 11 appearances in this year’s playoffs, he’s upheld a .932 save percentage and 2.22 goals-against average. The 27-year-old hasn’t lost an elimination game since the beginning of time and has been a key member of the Lightning’s back-to-back Cup triumphs.
Shesterkin will occupy the other crease, hoping to outduel the other world-class Russian netminder in the NHL. The 26-year-old’s record is also remarkable: he holds a .928 save percentage and 2.68 goals-against average after 14 games.
Unlike Vasilevskiy, who has seen it, done it, and has the t-shirt, Shesterkin is still relatively new to superstardom. He’s only featured in 100 NHL regular-season matches, a figure dwarfed by Vasilevskiy’s 365 outings.
If the Rangers or Lightning win the Cup, they’ll have their netminders to thank for advancing from the Conference Finals.
Areas of Weakness:
Tampa Bay’s main concern heading into the Conference Finals is their health. Brayden Point didn’t play a shift in the second round, with the Lightning understandably banged up after going the distance in consecutive years.
By contrast, the Rangers are still unproven. They haven’t faced off against a legitimate starting goalie in these playoffs (both Freddie Andersen and Tristian Jarry are injured) and are accused of leaning on their netminder too heavily. Although the New Yorkers are coming into their own, question marks still hang over them.
Believe it or not, the Lightning will advance from the Conference Finals with a victory in Game 5. Cooper’s squad are playoff masters: they’ve experienced plenty of heartbreak, reached the summit, and are not battling to stay there. By contrast, the Rangers are years ahead of schedule in their window to contend and still a little wet behind the ears.
It’ll be a tight series, but Tampa Bay will have too much quality for the Rangers – who are too reliant on Shesterkin.
Colorado Avalanche versus Edmonton Oilers:
If the Eastern Conference Final is a best-of-seven goalie war, Nathan MacKinnon versus Connor McDavid is the story on the other side of the bracket. For a sport notoriously lax when it comes to marketing its stars, this series promises to be a work of art.
Colorado advanced to the Conference Finals by sweeping the Nashville Predators and overcoming the St. Louis Blues in six games. They’re yet to trail in a series and enter the final four as favourites to hoist the Cup.
By contrast, Edmonton’s dominance has developed throughout the postseason: they scrapped past the LA Kings in Round 1, before smothering the Calgary Flames 4-1 in an enthralling Battle of Alberta.
Jared Bednar’s Avs closed the regular-season with a 56-19-7 record, a significant improvement on the Oilers’ 49-27-6 clip.
Conn Smythe Trophy Candidates:
I won’t be hipster about this.
Even though Leon Draisaitl is producing offence at a remarkable rate on one leg, McDavid is Edmonton’s candidate for MVP heading into the Conference Finals. He’s registered 26 points (seven goals, 19 assists) in 12 playoff appearances this term, an astounding figure, even by his standards.
The 25-year-old dragged Edmonton through the first round and absolutely bossed the Battle of Alberta. If the Oilers win the Cup, the Conn Smythe is his.
Cale Makar is Colorado’s MVP pick: he leads the team in points (13) while averaging 26:41 time on ice from the blueline. The 23-year-old is outrageously skilful for a defenceman and can dictate the play unlike almost any of his peers.
Makar will spend plenty of time tracking McDavid in the Conference Finals: who will come out on top?
Areas of Weakness:
Mike Smith has performed admirably in net for the Oilers throughout the postseason… but it’s still fair to worry about a 40-year-old’s ability to backstop a shaky blueline to the Cup.
Smith has stepped up for Edmonton, his save percentage has improved from .915 in the regular-season to .927 in the playoffs, but costly mistakes continue to lurk in the background. Take this goalazo for example:
Rasmus Andersson just scored from the defensive zone to tie the game in the third period. Mike Smith, baby. pic.twitter.com/BebGpOb4bY
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) May 25, 2022
Colorado’s biggest area of concern in the Conference Finals is their bottom four defencemen. Following an injury to Samuel Girard, Bednar has been forced to ice Jack Johnson with Josh Manson and Bowen Byram with Erik Johnson.
Although the Avs’ defence is stronger than Edmonton’s one-through-six, the bottom half of their blueline is relatively shaky. As a result, Colorado’s top pair of Devon Toews and Makar will be expected to soak up difficult assignments.
If the Oilers can isolate Johnson and Manson against McDavid, Draisaitl and Evander Kane, this series could get spicy.
Although it would be unwise to completely discount Edmonton’s chances, I’m backing the Avalanche to advance from the Conference Finals. They’re the better team and have the benefit of home-ice advantage and a more trustworthy netminder. Colorado in six.
Who are you backing in the Conference Finals? Join the conversation by tweeting @BritIceHockey.