The NHL Semifinals: Islanders face Lightning in rematch, Canadiens heavy underdogs versus Golden Knights, Thoughts on Avalanche and Bruins, Fox up for Norris


Twenty-four hours apart, the final two teams of the NHL Semifinals finished off their second round series by closing out Game Six at home. With both the Islanders and Golden Knights taking care of business to prevent Game Seven in enemy territory, the Final 4 is all set.

It’ll feature the Islanders again challenging the defending champion Lightning on one side. Even better, home ice will matter. The Bolts are the higher seed and have the luxury of a deciding seventh game in Tampa. However, the Islanders host Games 3-4 and 6 (if necessary) at Nassau Coliseum. The Barn has rocked this postseason by hosting closeout games against the Pens and Bruins. The atmosphere was raucous. You better believe the Islanders want to go out with a bang in its final season in Uniondale. It should be interesting.

On the flip side, it’ll be a David versus Goliath match-up featuring the heavy underdog Canadiens looking to continue their magical run against the very formidable Golden Knights. While the Habs made quick work of the Jets following the four-game suspension of Mark Scheifele for his foolish hit that injured Jake Evans, Vegas showed how tough they truly are by digging out of a 2-0 hole by winning four consecutive games to eliminate the Avalanche in six. It was a heck of a series. The difference was the superior depth and grit of Vegas. Both the Knights and Lightning are back in the Final 4 for a second straight year. Will we get a potential heavyweight match-up between Vegas and Tampa for the Stanley Cup? Who knows.

It’s very hard to predict what will happen. Conventional wisdom says the Lightning and Golden Knights will advance and play for Lord Stanley. However, you can’t underestimate how well the Islanders are playing. Especially being a four line team who boast three scoring lines along with shutdown center Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who paces them in scoring while getting it done against Patrice Bergeron. Ditto for the Cinderella Canadiens, who have been carried by Carey Price. He’s having a Patrick Roy like playoffs. Think ’93. The offense has mostly come from the top line and the veteran laden fourth line. They’ll need more from key cogs Brendan Gallagher and Josh Anderson to pull it off.

Keys to beating the Lightning. It’s simple. Stay out of the box. The Lightning 🌩 boast the best power play. They’re lethal. With leading scorer Nikita Kucherov not missing a beat with 18 points, Steven Stamkos in his office, Victor Hedman running the point, Brayden Point in the slot and Alex Killorn again raising his level, they are scary. As Carolina found out in the momentum turning Game Four that saw them blow a 4-2 lead due to penalties, you cannot put Tampa on the man-advantage. Enter at your own risk.

If they can play them at five-on-five, the Islanders have a chance. Barry Trotz is a mastermind when it comes to game planning and making key adjustments. He realized against the Bruins that Pageau was the better center to match up versus the Perfection Line. That took pressure off Brock Nelson, who was huge in getting the key insurance marker that wound up as the game-winner in Game Five, and scoring another huge goal in the series clincher. He steps it up along with Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Bailey. It was also crucial that Mat Barzal got it going. His huge goals and big assists helped turn the series around. Game Four was his coming out party. He was the best player scoring a goal and adding an assist while drawing a penalty on David Krejci due to mixing it up.

What makes them so hard to play against is Trotz’ commitment to the details. In shutdown tandem Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, he has a strong top pair that he trusts to neutralize opponents’ best scoring lines. You can bet they’ll see a lot of Kucherov and Point. Expect Scott Mayfield to draw the assignment against Stamkos. He did a splendid job shadowing Taylor Hall.

For Trotz, he never gives much away. When asked about who his goalie will be for Game One on Sunday, he only indicated that it’ll be a left catching Russian. The dry humor of the Czar again on full display. Bank on Semyon Varlamov being in net versus Russian counterpart Andrei Vasilevskiy. Varlamov won four of five starts after replacing first round hero Ilya Sorokin. He was splendid in the last two games. Trotz can always make a change if his team needs it. He’s never afraid to roll the dice.

After Team President and GM Lou Lamoriello acquired Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the Devils, neither really distinguished themselves in the remainder of the regular season. However, here is Palmieri scoring big goals in the playoffs. He has seven. His hit to Charlie McAvoy post scrum should be reviewed. It was a head shot. Palmieri isn’t dirty. But neither was Scheifele. Zajac has fit in with Palmieri and Pageau on that checking line. He got his first goal the other night and continued to be a reliable checker and penalty killer. One question is what if Oliver Wahlstrom is ready. Knowing Trotz, he’ll stick with what’s worked. If they lose, you’ll see Wahlstrom back in.

Don’t forget the Identity Line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. Cizikas is winning over 60 percent of his face-offs. He’s a key penalty killer and trusted defensive center, who Trotz knows he can put out to protect a lead. Martin and Clutterbuck are the Mighty Ducks’ NHL version of the Bash Brothers. They hit and hit hard. Every check is finished. Clutterbuck leads all players with 66 hits while Martin ranks third with 59. Their physicality has made a difference. Leo Komarov also is up there along with Pulock. That grinding style can wear down opponents.

Aside from the explosiveness of Kucherov, Point, Hedman and Stamkos, the Lightning boast great depth that can make an impact in these big series. Ondrej Palat has been relatively quiet. He is a good player who complements Point and Kucherov well. Both Blake Coleman and Yanni Gourde are solid checking players who like to get dirty in front of the net. Look for both to make life for Varlamov tough. Anthony Cirelli anchors the second line with Stamkos and Killorn. Cirelli is a strong two-way player with good speed. On the blue line, it isn’t only Hedman that must be accounted for. Ryan McDonagh has quietly had a good postseason. He’s played superb in his end stifling opponents with the overlooked Erik Cernak. McDonagh has stepped up his physical game playing with the edge he once did in the Big Apple. Mikhail Sergachev is a strong skating D who can contribute offensively. His defense has improved, but expect the Isles to go after him and Hedman.

The Golden Knights are a handful. As the Avalanche found out the hard way, there’s no quit in Peter DeBoer’s relentless club. They could’ve melted following a tacky call that led to Mikko Rantanen scoring on the power play to beat Vegas in Game Two. They couldn’t crack Philipp Grubauer until the third period of Game Three. The turning point was Jonathan Marchessault banking one off Grubauer to tie the score. The winner came 45 seconds later. That swung the momentum. After taking care of business to even the series, the the Knights again used a third period rally to stun Colorado in Game Five. Goals from Marchessault and Alex Tuch off bad Avalanche turnovers tied the score. In overtime, a Max Pacioretty block on Ryan Graves allowed him to pass for captain Mark Stone, who got into the clear and went high bar on Grubauer to win the game at 50 seconds of sudden death. It was the brilliant play from Stone, whose line shutdown Nathan MacKinnon, that turned the tables. The Avalanche didn’t get enough run support from the secondary players. Aside from Brandon Saad, they didn’t have enough without Nazem Kadri. While MacKinnon picked up two helpers in the 6-3 loss last night, he didn’t score a goal after the Game One blowout. He was held to three assists over the last five.

While Marc-Andre Fleury shined in net with timely saves including his huge stop on Valeri Nichushkin to preserve a 4-3 lead, Grubauer couldn’t prevent Vegas from finishing it off. A goal from William Carrier off a face-off win made it 5-3. Max Pacioretty added the empty netter to seal it. He’s made a big difference. Since returning and scoring in Game Seven to oust the Wild, Pacioretty has eight points in seven games. Along with Stone, Marchessault, Karlsson and Reilly Smith, the deeper Knights are very tough. Especially when you factor in the fourth line and a balanced defe se that features Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore and Alec Martinez. Even Nick Holden has contributed a couple of big goals and a few helpers. The depth they possess should make them very difficult for the Habs to beat.

This is the first Final 4 for Les Habitants since 2014 when they lost in six to the Rangers. This time, Pacioretty is an opponent. The subplot of him facing his former team while former Vegas first round pick Nick Suzuki goes up against the team that drafted him is intriguing. Suzuki anchors the top Canadiens’ line that also includes brilliant newcomer Cole Caufield. The former Badger has four assists including a beauty across for leading scorer Tyler Toffoli that won Game Four in overtime at Bell Centre to sweep Winnipeg. That’s quite a top line. Along with the cohesive checking line of veterans Eric Staal, Corey Perry and Joel Armia, they’ve done the bulk of the scoring. That must change this round. Phil Danault has centered a superb checking line that includes Brendan Gallagher. Gallagher only has four points so far. The Montreal captain must be a factor along with Josh Anderson to have a chance.

In net, we know how well Price has played. Once again, he’s reaffirmed why many consider him one of the best netminders in the NHL. While his regular season numbers have suffered, it’s astonishing how well Price has played since returning after a concussion kept him out. The fact he can deliver the clutch stops gives the Habs a psychological edge. It might explain why they haven’t trailed once during their seven-game win streak. The second longest such streak without trailing in playoff history. Price has always been able to elevate his game come postseason. He’ll have to stand on his head and steal multiple games against Vegas.

The defense hasn’t really done a whole lot offensively. Jeff Petry and Shea Weber aren’t scoring much this Spring. We know Weber logs big minutes and gets the tough assignments along with underrated former Stanley Cup champ Joel Edmundson. Ben Chiarot is asked to play a ton. He’s turnover prone. You better believe the aggressive Knights will look to pounce on any mistakes. Can the Habs hang with the Knights? Only if key players step it up. That includes Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

The thinking is Golden Knights in five. The Islanders force the Lightning to go seven. I haven’t decided who will prevail. You know who I’m pulling for. The prospect of the Isles playing for the Cup is daunting. Go Bolts.

In terms of disappointment, is there anyone that sounded more down than MacKinnon? Following the Game Six second round elimination to the tougher Golden Knights, the Avalanche captain remarked how he’s been in the league eight years and “hadn’t won shit.” It was a very candid observation from a superstar who expects more from himself along with his team. Somehow that led to this ridiculous question from troll Adrian Dater. 🙄

How is this clown allowed to have a press credential? He’s been around a long time. Could he at least try to be professional? The reaction from MacKinnon says it all. I don’t blame him. The truth is Colorado blew it. Costly mistakes in Game Three turned it around. Ditto for Game Five when the Avs fell asleep after leading 2-0. You have to continue to execute in the neutral zone and get pucks deep. Gabriel Landeskog made a bad turnover inside the Vegas zone when his pass was behind Ryan Graves. That allowed the Knights to counter and tie the game on a gorgeous set up from Karlsson to Marchessault. Stone then worked some overtime magic. In a back and forth game Thursday night, the Avalanche couldn’t put the Golden Knights away. Eventually, the deeper and harder forechecking team finished them off.

For Colorado, it comes down to improving the back end and adding more grit. Not having the suspended Kadri hurt. Will they keep him? Too bad Erik Johnson can’t stay healthy as he’s the exact kind of defenseman they could’ve used. What about Jared Bednar? Is his job safe? Or does this team need a change. Would John Tortorella fit? Who knows. Bednar got outcoached by DeBoer.

This key bit of information from Rask, who may have played his last game for the Bruins. The 34-year old wants to stay. Hopefully, he does. Here’s what he played through.

Hockey player. 🏒 It sure explains why Tuukka struggled in the Islanders’ series. Particularly in the last game where two uncharacteristic miscues resulted in costly goals against. Rask has been a great goalie in Boston for a decade. He’s won a Vezina and reached two Stanley Cup Finals as the starter. He’s been a model of consistency and strong in the playoffs over his career. And yet you still have a few knuckleheads who don’t fully appreciate his body of work. I’m glad someone does.

Where was the Boston secondary scoring? Why did Hall turn into a ghost? Of the second line that fared so well in the first round triumph over the Caps, only David Krejci had a decent series. Krejci remains a solid two-way pivot who wins draws and a very good passer. Aside from deciding on Rask and Hall, who both have indicated they want to stay, the Bruins face a tough decision on Krejci.

While Bergeron didn’t quite have the series he wanted, Marchand was superb. He scored big goals including the OT winner in Game 3 from a tough angle. He also scored in Game Five and Six when he was the one Bruin who factored in. The Rat 🐀 remains a top five player among forwards. It’s due to his unique combination of skating, twists and turns, grit, goal scoring and playmaking. He really is the straw that stirs the drink. Along with Pastrnak, who also was very good in the playoffs, they’re the top two Bruins with the older Bergeron third. It’s kind of ridiculous that Trotz’ gripes resulted in Bergeron getting tossed from a few face-offs. Bruce Cassidy was right to stick up for him. He’s one of the best two-way players and very easy to respect.

For the B’s, not having Brandon Carlo really hurt. Once he went down on a clean Clutterbuck hit, it effected the Boston defense. Particularly the penalty kill where they got burned for three power play goals in the disappointing Game Five loss. One which Cassidy went off on the officiating for by referring to the Islanders as the New York Saints. They have a good reputation as one of the league’s least penalized teams. But you have to wonder if part of it is due to who the GM is. The Isles defend well. But you can’t tell me they don’t get away with stuff. It’s again a matter of consistency with the stripes. Something that never happens. Like Groundhog Day.

Finally, Adam Fox was named as a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman. The candidates he’s up against are Hedman and Cale Makar. In my opinion, he should win. As he was the best of the trio nominated. My top five:

1. Adam Fox

2. Victor Hedman

3. Shea Theodore

4. Cale Makar

5. Charlie McAvoy

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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