If teams left in the NHL playoffs are sick and tired of facing the same opponents over and over, they are in luck for the semi-finals.
After exclusively divisional play this season and through the first two rounds, the hockey playoffs have progressed to the final four teams that have not played each other throughout the year. The New York Islanders face the Tampa Bay Lightning in a semifinal that is a rematch of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals, while the Vegas Golden Knights play the Montreal Canadiens in a playoff series for the first time.
After so much familiarity with seeing the same team over and over again, the final two rounds with the Stanley Cup bring out every element of the unknown.
“It’s a different series in terms of preparation,” said Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon. “Now with the Islanders and Tampa Bay, our own series with Montreal, it’s brand new. Starting from the beginning.”
The league, which has insisted on rivalry for decades, has only limited play for one season within the four rematched divisions due to the pandemic. This allowed all 31 teams to complete a brief, 56-game schedule, with 16 making the playoffs.
New York emerged from the east, Tampa Bay Central, Vegas West and Montreal North. The players and coaches of these teams haven’t given much thought to each other throughout the season, let alone scouting or preparing for them.
“Different season for everyone,” said Canadiens coach Dominic Ducharme. “Different style of play or different teams that you play often, but that’s part of the challenge for everyone right now.”
If Montreal-Vegas, which begins Monday night, go the distance, teams will face off during a playoff series more often than during the regular season, since the Golden Knights began play in 2017.
The Lightning and Islanders grind to a six-game series nine months ago in the postseason bubble in Edmonton, Alberta, so some will be familiar when the puck drops Sunday afternoon in Tampa.
“It helps a little bit,” said Islanders coach Barry Trotz. “Most of our players played in that series, so they understand that when we are talking about certain trends or the way they play.”
Tampa Bay won that series for the last time before defeating Dallas and hoisting the Stanley Cup. With the Lightning, Islanders and Golden Knights in the semi-finals, the NHL has the same team in the Last Four for the first time since 1991 and 1992.
Vegas center Mattias Janmark and Montreal winger Cory Perry are back in the third round after going through the finals with Dallas. Perry said watching games in other divisions helps to remove the uncertainty.
“I think you look at our two teams and there are four lines on either side, six D’s, and two great world-class goalkeepers face to face,” Perry said. “it’s going to be fun.”
Lightning is having fun with 2019 MVP Nikita Kucherov after missing a regular season recovering from hip surgery. Kucherov leads all-scorers through two rounds of the playoffs with 18 points.
“He’s a tremendous hockey player,” said Islanders GM Lou Lamorillo.
The Islanders remember how tremendous Kucherov can be, and Tampa Bay now has captain Steven Stamkos playing as well. But each team also knows that there are some differences as to why they have not been together on the ice since September.
Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said, “You might wish you had played them a little more lately, but at the end of the day, this is a situation we’ve dealt with.” “We knew that if we got to this point we were going to face a team that we hadn’t played in the regular season.”
Vegas goes to the semifinals as the favourite. The Golden Knights are the No. 1 seed based on finishing with the most points and after needing seven games to beat Minnesota and battle-tested through a tight second-round series against Presidents’ Trophy winners Colorado.
It remains to be seen whether the franchise can withstand the challenge of reaching the finals from the organization with 24 Stanley Cup titles in its fourth year of existence.
“I’ve always believed that as you progress, you have to keep getting better to win in the playoffs,” McCrimmon said. “Winning is tough. Nothing has been easy for us in every series we have played. As we get to the semi-finals, it will get tougher.”
AP Hockey writer John Varro contributed to this report.
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