Stanley Cup semifinals preview

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There's a familiar feel to these Stanley Cup semifinals, as the field features three of the four teams that contested here last season.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders will meet in a rematch of last year's conference finals, while the Vegas Golden Knights will instead face the Montreal Canadiens for a chance at the Stanley Cup.

Once again the Lightning and Knights are overwhelming favorites to meet in the Stanley Cup Final, but as we learned last year, these things don't always play out according to script.

1. Golden Knights (-500) vs. 4. Canadiens (+375)

Regular-season stats

GOLDEN KNIGHTS STAT CANADIENS
40-14-2 Record 24-21-11
54.02 (5th) xGF%* 53.00 (11th)
54.56 (4th) CF%* 54.31 (6th)
53.47 (9th) HDCF%* 51.88 (12th)
9.5 (3rd) SH%* 7.52 (25th)
.920 (11th) SV%* .914 (21st)
17.8 (22nd) PP% 19.2 (17th)
86.8 (1st) PK% 78.5 (23rd)

*five-on-five

Playoff stats

GOLDEN KNIGHTS STAT CANADIENS
8-5-0 Record 8-3-0
56.04 (3rd) xGF%* 53.48 (6th)
54.09 (5th) CF%* 50.97 (9th)
54.95 (5th) HDCF%* 50.57 (8th)
8.98 (2nd) SH%* 6.04 (12th)
.920 (12th) SV%* .942 (3rd)
14.3 (14th) PP% 18.8 (8th)
71.4 (12th) PK% 90.3 (1st)

*five-on-five

Vegas and Montreal are set to meet for the first time since January 2019, the longest two third-round opponents have gone without playing each other in the lead up to a head-to-head series. The Canadiens won both meetings 5-4 during the 2019-20 season - both victories coming after regulation - and is 5-1-0 all time against Vegas.

This is familiar territory for the Knights, who were betting favorites to win the Stanley Cup heading into last season's conference finals before losing 4-1 to the Dallas Stars. This will be Vegas' third appearance in the semifinals in its short four-year history, though it's still chasing that elusive Cup win.

It's a series rife with storylines as the league's most successful franchise takes on its newest. Former Montreal captain Max Pacioretty will go up against his former team, as will Nick Suzuki, the Canadiens' young star who was acquired in the trade with Vegas. It's a trip home for Marc-Andre Fleury, the league's active leader in wins among Quebec-born goalies. It's a David vs. Goliath story in the sense that Montreal finished the regular season with the fewest points among playoff teams, while Vegas accrued the joint-most.

Most importantly, it's a meeting between the two teams with the best underlying numbers from the second round. The Canadiens posted an unheralded 68.1% share of the expected goals at five-on-five in their sweep of the Winnipeg Jets, while the Knights posted an excellent 59.0% share over six games against the Colorado Avalanche. The quality of opponent in these series was drastically different, but there's something to be said about Montreal winning the most lopsided playoff series in the last 14 seasons.

Say what you want about the North Division, but the run Montreal's on is truly remarkable. The Canadiens have won seven straight and haven't trailed in 437:45 - the second-longest streak in playoff history. They've outscored their opponents 24-12 over that span, posted a 31.6% success rate with the man advantage, and a perfect 100% on the penalty kill (15 attempts) with three shorthanded goals.

Vegas' run has been equally impressive, winning four straight over the Presidents Trophy-winning Avalanche, and doing so in dominant fashion. The Knights outscored Colorado 15-6 at five-on-five over the final four games and generated 50 high-danger chances to just 31 against. Vegas was full value for its series win, though Philipp Grubauer allowing 5.16 goals above expected in the final three games certainly didn't help Colorado's cause. Connor Hellebuyck saved 2.04 goals above expected while being swept by Montreal.

The Knights have certainly benefitted from the postseason's second-highest shooting percentage at five-on-five (8.98), and while regression is possible against Carey Price, who leads all goaltenders with a 4.8 GSAA in these playoffs, it's certainly not probable, either. Both goalies Vegas has faced so far rank in the bottom half of the playoffs in GSAA (minimum four appearances), while both goalies Montreal has faced rank inside the top five. For as well as Fleury has looked at times, he sits eighth.

While goaltending will be key here for the Canadiens once again, so too will special teams. The Knights have done the majority of their damage at five-on-five in these playoffs, as both special-teams units have been abysmal. Their power play has been anemic and the penalty kill victimized. Conversely, Montreal's penalty kill has been the top unit in the playoffs, holding a really strong Jets power play goalless. If the Habs' units can stay hot and maintain a big edge in this series, it will be a lot closer than the line indicates.

They will need to as well, because for as strong an even-strength team as the Canadiens have been over the years, Vegas is an entirely different beast. The Knights have ranked top-five in expected goal share at five-on-five in each of the last three seasons, overwhelming teams by rolling all four lines and staying aggressive on the forecheck. They play the same style as Montreal, only they do it better.

The Canadiens have held up well defensively in these playoffs, playing low-event hockey, but how will they fare against an incredibly deep Vegas lineup? Forward depth was supposed to be a strong suit for the Leafs and Jets, but the absence of John Tavares and Mark Scheifele quickly mitigated that. Vegas will need to contribute in this series should its top line be contained by Montreal's Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher, and Artturi Lehkonen.

The Canadiens' top line hasn't provided a ton of offense, but its ability to shut down the opposition's best players and allow the rest of Montreal's forwards to shine has been integral to this team's playoff success. It won't be as straightforward against a Vegas team that's received 21 goals total from its second and third line.

Vegas is deserving of being priced as heavy favorites, but this is extreme. The Canadiens have the depth to match up with the Knights, and while they can't match them for talent, they can bridge the divide with strong goaltending and efficiency on special teams. The Knights will have too much in the end as they book their place in the Cup final, but it won't come as easy as many are predicting.

Pick: Over 5.5 games (-110)

3. Lightning (-300) vs. 4. Islanders (+250)

Regular-season stats

LIGHTNING STAT ISLANDERS
36-17-3 Record 32-17-7
53.22 (10th) xGF%* 54.07 (4th)
53.12 (7th) CF%* 49.35 (16th)
51.91 (11th) HDCF%* 56.21 (3rd)
8.34 (14th) SH%* 8.37 (13th)
.921 (10th) SV%* .931 (3rd)
22.2 (9th) PP% 18.8 (20th)
84.2 (4th) PK% 83.7 (6th)

*five-on-five

Playoff stats

LIGHTNING STAT ISLANDERS
8-3-0 Record 8-4-0
51.91 (7th) xGF%* 46.38 (12th)
48.17 (10th) CF%* 41.97 (15th)
55.91 (4th) HDCF%* 45.89 (13th)
7.32 (5th) SH%* 9.81 (1st)
.941 (5th) SV%* .944 (2nd)
41.7 (1st) PP% 28.1 (4th)
77.8 (8th) PK% 61.5 (14th)

*five-on-five

Unlike in the other series, these teams are no strangers to one another. This is a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference Final, which the Lightning won 4-2 en route to winning the Stanley Cup. Both teams disposed of two very tough opponents to return to the semifinals, where Tampa are once again heavy favorites to repeat last season's success.

That's nothing new for the Islanders, who have continued to defy expectations in the playoffs, overcoming a 46.38% expected goal share and 41.97% Corsi share at five-on-five to beat both the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. But have they finally met their match in the conference final?

Tampa started the playoffs strong and has only improved, managing 55% of the expected goal share at five-on-five against a really good Carolina Hurricanes team. The Bolts have also scored the second-most goals per 60 minutes in these playoffs while allowing the third fewest. Everything is clicking for them at the moment, including a power play converting at an almost unheard of 41.7%.

When you watch the Tampa power play you quickly understand why. The amount of weapons on this team is almost unthinkable, and they complement each other perfectly. If the Islanders are to be successful in this series they'll need to slow down the Tampa power play, but given how much they've struggled on the penalty kill - a miserable 61.5% success rate in the playoffs - it's hard to see that happening.

When you break down the numbers it truly is remarkable the Islanders are still alive in these playoffs. They haven't been good at five-on-five, and while their power play has been solid, their penalty kill has also put them at a disadvantage on special teams. Not to discredit the Isles, but they've benefitted from an unsustainably high PDO.

Their .944 save percentage at five-on-five is a tad high, even given their quality in the crease, while a 9.81 shooting percentage - by far the highest of any team in the playoffs - is absolutely due for regression.

The reason for the Islanders' high shooting percentage is largely down to the quality of goaltending they've faced. In the first round, Tristan Jarry posted a miserable minus-6.44 GSAA while allowing 6.72 goals above expected. He directly cost the Penguins at least three games and was a driving force behind New York's success. In the second round, Tuukka Rask inexplicably played through a torn labrum in his hip and his play deteriorated as the series progressed, allowing an absurd 4.96 goals above expected over the last two games.

Andrei Vasilevskiy won't be nearly as generous. His heroics consistently bail the Lightning out on their rare off nights. He's saved a remarkable 7.38 goals above expected in these playoffs, and is second with a 4.72 GSAA - narrowly behind Price, and well ahead of the rest of the pack. Solving him is going to prove a much tougher task for the Islanders, who are generating just 2.06 expected goals per 60 minutes and 8.6 high-danger chances per 60 at five-on-five in the playoffs, by far the worst marks among the final four teams.

With the Lightning expected to out-chance the Islanders throughout this series, New York will require an other-worldly performance between the pipes to pull off the upset. But consecutive semifinal appearances mean the Islanders are doing something right.

They're disciplined, structured, and opportunistic. They get timely saves and score timely goals. They're well-coached and everyone buys in. We know the Islanders are capable of knocking off the giants, but Tampa doesn't appear to be that giant.

The Lightning's unique blend of world-class talent and grit allows them to play and succeed in any environment, and they have the blueprint for defeating Barry Trotz's team, doing so at this stage last season without Steven Stamkos. All signs point to history repeating itself here.

Pick: Lightning -1.5 (-120)

Alex Moretto is theScore's supervising editor of sports betting. Find him on Twitter @alexjmoretto.

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Stanley Cup semifinals preview
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