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The third round of the playoffs will be underway starting Sunday afternoon and once again the Montreal Canadiens advanced despite the odds being against them. The HabsWorld writers provide their predictions on the two semifinal series to see who will advance on to the Stanley Cup final.

Conference Semifinals

Montreal Canadiens vs Vegas Golden Knights

Norm Szcyrek predicts: Canadiens in 7 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Golden Knights in 5 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Golden Knights in 6 games
Allan Katz predicts:  Canadiens in 6 games
Naqeeb Shaikh predicts: no prediction
Terry Costaris predicts: Canadiens in 7 games

(Norm) This will be a very, very close series. We all know how well the Habs have been playing this postseason, especially considering their seven-game winning streak that spans two series (so far). What’s particularly impressive is the way the team has such a balanced attack. When the team’s fourth line of Eric Staal, Corey Perry, and Joel Armia combine for twenty points in eleven games, you know things are going well. That kind of production would normally raise their ice time, but head coach Dominique Ducharme instead has been rolling all four lines. Another sign of the depth of the top lines is that four different forwards share the lead in goals scored (Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki, Joel Armia, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi). The top line of Toffoli, Suzuki, and rookie Cole Caufield continues to provide offence. Caufield has surprised many with four assists, surprising his linemates with visionary passes that have led to big goals. In net, Carey Price has been stellar, playing his best hockey when the opposition has increased their pressure to score. The team has relied heavily on their top-four defencemen and interjected the bottom two defencemen with relatively little time.

Vegas is a team with an interesting mix of defence and offence. Up front, centre William Karlsson leads the team with eleven points in thirteen games. Former Hab Max Pacioretty is tied for second on the team with eight points, despite missing six games with an injury. Their defence is led by Alex Pietrangelo, who is also tied for second in team scoring, and brings Stanley Cup-winning experience. Although the Vegas defence has been scoring more than the Canadiens, I like the defensive game the Montreal squad has shown better. Another edge the Canadiens have is in goal, along with their road record in the playoffs. Price has played much better than Marc-Andre Fleury has. I expect a hard-fought series, one that the Habs will prevail.

(Brian) I guess I get to be the overly pessimistic one again (it’s a role that suits me well).  The Habs are built with a similar style to Vegas but there’s a key difference that a lot of people are overlooking – Vegas plays the style with better players.  That generally is not a good thing when you’re the opponent.

Up front, their top nine is better than Montreal’s top nine and when the only forward matchup that is in your favour is the fourth line, it’s hard to be too optimistic.  (And Tomas Nosek is getting closer to returning which would mitigate the fourth-line advantage.)  Defensively, Vegas’ top four is better than Montreal’s, with or without Petry and it looks like they’ll be without him to start at least.  With how infrequently Ducharme uses the third pairing, I’ll call that a wash but that’s not a big vote of confidence.

Yes, I’ll give the Habs a small goaltending advantage but let’s not overlook that Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off a career year.  There’s a reason he’s a Vezina Trophy finalist and it’s not because the award is a popularity contest.  He earned it.  Take Montreal’s offence which is mediocre at best and put them against a much better defence than Winnipeg or even Toronto presented and a goalie that has played better than what they’ve faced so far.  It’s hard to see them scoring much which makes it hard to be optimistic about this series.

Against Colorado, there were at least some similarities to Toronto they could get behind.  If Danault’s line could neutralize the Nathan MacKinnon trio, they’d have had a puncher’s chance offensively.  Price wins a game or two on his own and there’s a path to an upset.  With Vegas playing the same way the Habs do but with better players and better execution, that path isn’t as visible.

I’ve been wrong twice already about the Habs and I’d love to be wrong a third time but this team isn’t very good when they’re playing from behind.  They’re not playing the entire series tied or with the lead again.  I see struggles on the horizon as a result.

(Kevin) Many are going to think I’m crazy, but I prefer this matchup to the Colorado one. Vegas has more miles on them over the last few seasons so they know what it takes but they’re also due to run out of steam at some point. It’s a ton of hockey over the last few years, so why not now.

The danger with Vegas is that they boast solid goaltending, but Fleury has a history against the Habs in the postseason and it’s not great. Furthermore, Vegas is more apt to get sucked into the muscle battle Montreal will want to initiate. This was the main thing the Habs were able to do against Winnipeg. The Jets were so worried about the physicality of the series that they forgot to play hockey.

On paper, I think Vegas has better forwards and defencemen but they’ve had two long series. I’m going to call a short series win for Vegas, but if Montreal can extend in any way, look for Vegas to run out of steam.

(Allan) The Habs will beat Vegas if they can split the first two games. Remember all the teams who made the Final Four have been playing really well. All of them feel optimistic for good reasons. If the Habs can split in Vegas the seed will be planted in everyone’s mind, “The Habs can win.” Vegas is not weak in goal, they too have an iconic talent in net, but Price is a tad better. As far as Vegas strengths are concerned – other than goal-scoring, amazing depth, solid defence, raucous crowds, winners all year, coaching, stunning consistency – other than those pittances, they have nothing. Now I have picked the Habs to win the last two series, but this time, come on folks, only a gutless homer could pick the Habs. Petry might never be 100% this season, Gallagher is not 100%, the four horsemen, currently the three horsemen, have been and will be overworked. Their X factor Caufield just had his 11th birthday. Without skates he’s 4’11. There are dogs who weigh more than him. I’m sorry, but only a weak assed homer would lay it on for the Habs. The Habs will win in six if they split the first two games.

(Naqeeb) This is a series that to me is a toss-up. On the one hand, you have the Habs who came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series vs. the Leafs and then gelled as a team and rode that momentum onto sweeping the Jets in 4-0. As the Habs have moved forward in the playoffs, their two-way game has grown and with Playoff Price plus the defence, it has allowed the forwards to be more opportunistic with their offensive zone decision making.

On the other hand, you’ve got the Knights who like the Habs have Game Seven experience vs. the Wild and came back from a 2-0 deficit vs. the Avs to win four straight games. They have an experienced coach in Peter DeBoer, who has been to the Final and surely wants to win it all with the team he has now!

The Knights have stars, depth, a Cup-winning goalie in Fleury, and their style of play suits the playoffs because of the size of their forwards. I think one thing the Habs must be mindful of is the Knights’ 4th line with Ryan Reaves. He’s a big body and will pound Montreal’s defence every chance he gets. In addition, I think a strategy may be to use Reaves to get under one of Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, or Joel Edmundson’s skin and force them to take undisciplined penalties.

The Habs must ensure they remain disciplined and stick to their game but adjust when needed. It is well-known now how well the Habs play when they score first, how long they have not been trailing, and the play of Price, so, it’s critical for them to assert their game plan early/consistently and not to overreact to Vegas’ physical play or sit back because they have the lead (i.e. Colorado sat back in Game 5 on a 2-0 lead and the rest is history). Getting more power play opportunities and having to spend less time shorthanded can keep Danault and the penalty crew fresh for 5-on-5 play disrupting the Knights offensive players’ rhythm.

No prediction for this one; whichever team stays more disciplined is more determined to win the puck battles and pay attention to the details will win the series.

(Terry) The Habs will beat Vegas if they continue to play as a unified whole and each player sticks to whatever tasks Dominique Ducharme has assigned to him. If they let up even a little bit, they will be done like dinner. I believe that the Canadiens can do this.

I’m going to use all of the found money from the first two series and put it all on red. I predict that the Habs will defeat the Golden Knights in seven.

I’m saying this despite the pundits reminding us that Vegas is a bit larger, faster, more skilled, deeper, and possesses more star power and playoff battle hardiness than Montreal. However, these pundits are going on what they know and not on what could be.

The Canadiens’ kids, Suzuki, Kotkaniemi, Caufield and perhaps a healthy Jake Evans, do not have much of a history but either did John LeClair, Claude Lemieux or Gilbert Dionne when they first appeared in the playoffs back in the day and this makes the Habs very underrated.

Most pundits continue to write off Montreal’s veterans. I don’t blame them, they are old by NHL standards but if they can squeeze out a bit more of what’s left in their tanks, they too could be another underrated lethal force.

Again, logic dictates a Golden Knights victory. And logic usually prevails when there is a large and consistent sample size to work with. In gambling, a casino wins 51% of the time – which allows it to be a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Logically speaking, this playoff series, like the house, should be a war of attrition where little by little, Vegas overtakes Montreal. But…

Somehow though, I believe that the Habs will win this series by committee. Carey Price should be a slight difference-maker. Likewise, each one of Montreal’s good four lines should contribute. Offensively, these lines are good enough to place Tomas Tatar and Paul Byron (if Evans returns) on standby. That’s pretty impressive.

My biggest concern will be the Jeff Petry factor. His finger injuries could undermine the Habs’ defence – particularly in terms of moving the puck out. Erik Gustafsson has the potential to surprise but this could be wishful thinking on my part. Alexander Romanov, if given the opportunity, may pull an Eric Desjardins imitation. The other kids are performing playoff magic, why not him? Again, this is wishful thinking on my part.

As you can see, my entire argument is based on intuition and speculation. And yet, I’m going to go with the red (bleu, blanc, et rouge).

If the Montreal Canadiens continue to work as a team and stick to the scripts each player has been given, then there is a chance – especially if everything comes down to a single game seven.

GM Marc Bergevin’s mantra all these years has been, “Anything can happen”. Maybe, just maybe he’s right this time around.

If I’m wrong, whatever, we still beat the Leafs and the Bruins are out ensuring that my summer barbecues (remember those things?) will be very pleasant. So, I’m going to have some fun on found money and predict that the Habs will win in seven. Go Habs Go.

New York Islanders vs Tampa Bay Lightning

Norm Szcyrek predicts: Islanders in 7 games
Brian La Rose predicts: Lightning in 6 games
Kevin Leveille predicts: Islanders in 7 games
Allan Katz predicts: Lightning in 6 games
Naqeeb Shaikh predicts: Islanders in 7 games

(Norm) Here is another tough series to predict because these two teams are so skilled and execute their game plans so diligently. The reigning champs from Tampa have been playing well in the first two rounds. The return of superstar Nikita Kucherov has been a huge boost to an already strong club. Kucherov leads his team with eighteen points in eleven games. His presence has spurred his teammates, four of which have been scoring at a point per game or better. Their defence is excellent, led by Victor Hedman, and their goaltending has also been outstanding with Andrei Vasilevsky.

The Islanders play a very united, synchronized team game. Jean-Gabriel Pageau has been their offensive leader with thirteen points in twelve games. Veterans Kyle Palmieri and Brock Nelson have scored seven and six goals, respectively. Their team is excellent in defensive situations, and it’s eerie how similar in style the Islanders are to the Canadiens. I’ll add, a revenge factor is on the Islanders side since Tampa defeated them in last season’s playoffs.

(Brian) The Islanders getting through Boston surprised me but Tampa Bay is a whole other animal.  They’re basically the same team they were a year ago and that team won in six games.  New York is a bit better but they’re pretty much the same team too.  History doesn’t usually repeat itself but I can’t see the Isles stymying that much firepower again.

(Kevin) This is the matchup of the two teams who are grossly over the cap as we currently speak. Of course, one is over the cap due to a missing captain and an early retirement, while the defending champions are over the cap due to cap circumvention. On the ice, Tampa Bay has the edge in every measurable category: Vasilevskiy over Varlamov, check. Scoring, check. Even the blue line boasts more skill in Tampa as Sergachev and Savard have been the team’s third pairing (which is ridiculous). However, it’s a song the Islanders, much like the Habs, are used to hearing. Not enough scoring, not enough talent, so on and so forth. They’ve bolstered those aspects of their roster and it’s paying dividends, so why not one more round? I think the Islanders’ systematic play could potentially drive the experienced Lightning wild, I doubt enough to win the series though. Still, I dislike the Lightning and their current roster enough to choose with my heart instead of my head.

(Allan) The Final Four – What a scary sounding phrase. All four teams got to here by hook or by crook, but none of these teams feel anything but great about how they’re doing. I am so tired of people saying Tampa is only for Strippers and Mosquitos (oh, darn, that was me); they won the Cup and have been winners for a while now. As disciplined as the Islanders are, they would have a tough time winning under any circumstances, but Tampa has gotten this far for two reasons. 1) They’re a great team. 2) They crooked the system by legally having the largest salary cap in the league… by a lot. Nikita Kucherov, a high paid right wing star, missed the whole season and had his salary not count against their cap. He’s now back, leading the playoffs in points, and salary doesn’t count against the cap in the playoffs so big advantage Tampa. I’m picking Tampa in six. Without Nikita K. I’d still pick them but in seven.

(Naqeeb) This series is going to be an epic chess match between two of the premier coaches in the NHL in Jon Cooper, and Barry Trotz. Both of them have won many levels, titles, and most importantly, are Stanley Cup winners. It’s a fact that Tampa Bay is a well-run, well-built, and well-coached team. They have the superstars Stamkos, Kucherov, and Hedman. I would even go as far as saying that Vasilevsky is a burgeoning superstar and that at times he gets overlooked because of the team’s depth and success. I think he’s a younger Nikolai Khabibulin but better.

As for the Isles, I’m a big fan of Lou Lamoriello and the way he constructs and manages a team and turns them into winners. He did that with the Devils, could have done it with the Leafs, and now is doing a successful job with the Isles. It’s true that before he came the roster had ample talent, but still, once again he is a legendary HOF builder and has demonstrated that as the game has changed from a trap to a more analytics-centric era, his approach to building winning organizations has not deteriorated or faltered. It’s shocking that Brendan Shanahan didn’t value Lou’s experience and wisdom enough, tough luck for the Shanaplan who favoured advanced analytics a bit too much, over a more balanced approach especially since he has won multiple Cups.

The Islanders play like a team, they believe in their defensive system, and they have the appropriate secondary depth to support Barzal, Beauvillier, Nelson, and Mayfield. I think if these two teams had not faced each other before in the playoffs, then I would pick Tampa Bay for their depth and Cup-winning pedigree. But I believe the Islanders have not forgotten the lessons learned from losing to Tampa Bay last postseason and I think that will serve them well.