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Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Who Will Prevail in Round 3

We've got two thrilling conference finals ahead of us, and Adam Proteau breaks down what to look for in both matchups.
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We’ve arrived at the third round of the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs, and we didn’t do as well with our predictions in the second round, going one-for-four. Still, we’re seven-for-12 in the post-season, and we’re looking for redemption in the Western and Eastern Conference Finals. Let’s get to it:

New York Rangers vs. Tampa Bay

The Winner: Tampa Bay, in six games

The Why: It’s a showdown of the NHL’s top two goaltenders, with the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy battling the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin. Both goalies have stolen games in these playoffs, and they’re likely to do so again in this round.

But there’s something about Tampa Bay’s dominance that makes them the favorite here. It probably comes down to the Lightning’s proficiency on defense. They’ve allowed an average of only 2.45 goals-against in 11 playoff games this spring, while the Blueshirts have surrendered an average of 3.00 goals-against in 14 games. Similarly, the Bolts’ penalty-killing unit have an 87.8 success rate, while the Rangers have an 80.5 rate in that category. New York has been the stronger offensive group, but they’ve yet to encounter a team that can lock their opponents down the way the Lightning can.

The Rangers have been a resilient bunch, surviving two 3-2 series deficits this post-season to move on after Game 7 wins, and Shesterkin has been largely responsible for their ability to bend, and not break. Forward Mika Zibanejad and defenseman Adam Fox have led the way for the Rangers on offense, posting 19 and 18 points respectively. Trade deadline acquisition Andrew Copp (six playoff goals) and veteran Chris Kreider (a team-best eight goals) also have been big-time contributors.

However, they’re going up against a Bolts squad that can hurt you courtesy of any of their top three forward lines. First-year Lightning winger Corey Perry has been one of the best value signings in the entire league this year; he’s currently tied with third-line center Ross Colton for Tampa Bay’s lead in scoring, with five goals. But three other Bolts forwards – star Steven Stamkos, winger Ondrej Palat, and star Nikita Kucherov – each have four goals, and Kucherov is fourth in the league in playoff assists, with 11 in as many games.

The way the Lightning dismantled the regular-season Eastern champion Florida Panthers should put the fear of the hockey gods into the Rangers. Tampa systematically shut down Florida’s powerful offense in their four-game sweep of Florida, and although Shesterkin is a better netminder than Panthers star Serge Bobrovsky, the Rangers haven’t encountered a goaltending menace like Vasilevskiy, who is the odds-on leader at this point to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

The fast, skilled Blueshirts will put up a bigger fight than Florida, but Tampa Bay simply is too strong in all areas to see them losing to New York.

Colorado Avalanche vs. Edmonton Oilers

The Winner: Colorado, in six games

The Why: The Oilers have wobbled in the post-season, nearly losing to the L.A. Kings in the seventh game of their first-round series, but superstar forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were behemoths for them, each generating an astonishing seven goals and 26 points in only 12 games. To say they’ve been unstoppable would be an understatement. Edmonton’s defense also has helped on offense, with their six blueliners combining for 30 points. When they’re at their best, the Oilers are blindingly fast, and can overwhelm the opposition’s defense with what looks like relative ease.

Edmonton has a fighting chance against Colorado because the Avalanche’s goaltending is nowhere near as good as the Lightning’s or Rangers’. Avs starter Darcy Kuemper has a ho-hum .904 save percentage in nine games, and he’ll be tested often by the Oilers’ top two forward lines. But the same can be said for Edmonton’s goaltending: 40-year-old veteran Mike Smith has a .927 save percentage, but he’s often good for a terrible goal or two in every game, and he’s not going to be bailed out by the Oilers’ offense nearly as much in this matchup. Edmonton was fortunate that Calgary Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom was awful in their five-game second-round series, but they won’t be as lucky going up against Kuemper.

Let’s be honest. Colorado’s defense is better than Edmonton’s - the Avs’ top–six blueliners have combined for 37 points – and although they don’t have a stunning one-two punch like McDavid and Draisaitl, they do have more depth and experience at forward than the Oilers.

The Avs have played the fewest games (10) of any of the final four teams for a reason: they’re as potent as any team in the league, and their top stars – Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri and Cale Makar – are hungry for a championship. Edmonton isn’t going to roll over and die in this series, but Colorado has too many difference-makers to lose in this round. A Tampa Bay/Avalanche Stanley Cup Final is very probable, and that will be an incredibly entertaining showdown.

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