Twenty-four teams entered the NHL bubble in mid-July, and only four remain from the Western Conference. As of the time of this article being written, the Dallas Stars hold a 3-2 lead over the Colorado Avalanche while the Vegas Golden Knights have a 3-2 lead in their series with the Vancouver Canucks. Let’s see how they got there:
Dallas vs Colorado:
The Colorado Avalanche, led by MVP-candidate Nathan MacKinnon and their phenom rookie defenseman, Cale Makar, came into the playoffs as the presumptive favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final from the Western Conference. In the first round against the Arizona Coyotes, who they defeated in five games, they looked to be on pace to do just that. However, their championship aspirations took a hit when their starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer went down with a lower-body injury. In the second round against the Stars, Grubauer was replaced by 30-year-old Pavel Francouz, who has not fared nearly as well in the starting role, a big reason why the Avalanche now find themselves in a 3-2 hole going into Wednesday night’s game. In seven games, Grubauer went 5-0-1 with a .922 save percentage while Francouz has gone 2-4 with an .892 save percentage. MacKinnon, who leads the playoffs in points (8G, 15A in 13 games), and the Avalanche continue to score goals, but they’ll need better goaltending if they want to beat a stellar Dallas Stars team.
On the Dallas side, their starting goaltender Ben Bishop has missed significant time as well, but the difference is their backup has been exceptional. Backup Anton Khudobin has gone 7-4 with a .911 save percentage. Couple this strong goaltending with the fact that Dallas is getting big contributions from up and down their lineup (three players with five or more goals) and third-year defenseman Miro Heiskanen has played like the best D-man in the league (4G, 14A in 14 games), and the Stars have a recipe for success.
Game 6 is on Wednesday, Sept. 2 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.
Vegas vs Vancouver:
The Vegas Golden Knights are a well-oiled machine. After going to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season in the NHL, they have now made the playoffs in each of their first three seasons and look to make it to the Western Conference Finals for the second time in that span. What was once surprising has now become a simple fact of life in the NHL: Vegas can flat out play. Their balanced and speedy offense (three players with 12 or more points) has so far proven too much for opponents to handle, and their excellent goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury can steal just about any game on the schedule. With quality players on every level of the roster, there really aren’t many concerns for this team as of now, while they hold a 3-2 lead against the Canucks.
Vancouver, meanwhile, has proven to be the fun surprise of the NHL season. Not many people pegged the ultra-young Canucks to make the playoffs, let alone dispatch the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues in seven games in round one, but here we are. Led by 21-year old center Elias Pettersson (7G, 15A in 15 games) and captain Bo Horvat, who has a league-leading nine goals this postseason, Vancouver has been quick, shifty and dangerous on offense. Unfortunately for them, goalie Jacob Markstrom, who is arguably their most important player, is day-to-day with a groin injury. Fortunately for them, however, backup Thatcher Demko stepped into the starting role for a crucial game 5 and played brilliantly, stopping 42 of 43 shots en route to a 2-1 Vancouver victory. Though they can score goals in bunches, they will likely need more excellent goaltending if they hope to complete the rare comeback from 3-1 down in the series and defeat a veteran Vegas team.
Game 6 is on Thursday, Sept. 3 at 9:45 p.m. Eastern.