Were the Islanders and Golden Knights that good or just lucky to be in the final four?
There is no shame in losing in the Conference Finals. Both the Vegas Golden Knights and the New York Islanders deserve full credit for what they did in the 2020 Playoffs. From the players, to management, to the fans they should be proud.
Still, just because you made it this far doesn’t mean you really are one of the top four teams in the NHL. Let’s explore if these two are for real or not.
The Vegas Golden Knights
Let’s start with the Golden Knights, who were surprisingly bounced by the Stars in 5 games. When you look at the West Finals, the Golden Knights played the Stars tight and lost two games in OT. Dallas scored just one more goal than Vegas (9-8) in the series.
During the regular season the Golden Knights were first in their devision and 3rd in the conference with 86 points. This is not surprising for a team that lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Washington Capitals in 2018. That year they finished 1st with 109 points, and last year they were 3rd with 93 points. This is a very good team with talent at every position.
So are the Golden Knights for real? Or are they on the decline? I think the Knights are in good shape in goal, whether they stick with Marc-Andre Fleury or sign Robin Lehner and trade MAF. We see Shea Theodore developing into a Norris candidate and a decent group of blue liners. Up front, the Knights have scoring depth with both Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone leading the charge.
The bottom line is that the Golden Knights are for real with plenty in the tank for another run next season. They need to upgrade their defense a little bit and maybe bring in one more top six forward to get over the top.
The New York Islanders
The Islanders are a blue-collar team that out work their opponents. They are the perfect reflection of their great coach, Barry Trotz. What made the Isles so tough this post-season was their resiliency and never say die attitude. It got them far. Well that and the fact the Capitals looked disinterested in round one. It also helped the Flyers were their own worst enemy, yet they almost pulled off a comeback down 3 games to 1. Against Tampa the Isles were outscored 20 to 12, it really wasn’t a surprise.
When I look at the Islanders in the regular season versus the one that got to game 6 in the East Finals, I see two slightly different teams. What’s consistent is their incredible commitment to defense, which was the bedrock of the Isles success in the playoffs.
In the post-season, the Islanders were averaging 3 goals per game. That is a quarter point better than their regular season output. They also finished 6th in the Metro and were falling out of the wild card picture when COVID-19 paused the season. That’s a major disappointment for a team that finished 2nd the season before with 103 points. So this run was really a bit surprising.
Now, the Islanders will have challenges this offseason signing their three big RFA’s in Mat Barzal, Devon Toews, and Ryan Pulock. The belief out there is someone may offer sheet Barzal, and that could be an issue for the Islanders to try and improve. For the record, the Isles have said they would match any offer.
They do have a prize goalie in Ilya Sorokin coming, but some key players could be lost to unrestricted free agency. Matt Martin’s loss will hurt their bottom six. Derick Brassard who was clutch is likely gone, as is defenseman Andy Greene. The Isles need more scoring but will they be able to attract a big name free agent to fill that need? There’s a lot of questions here.
Bottom line, the defense is getting older with Nick Leddy pushing 30 and Johnny Boychuk at 36. The Islanders had an awesome run here, but they may have gotten a little lucky and punched above their weight. When it comes down to it, the Isles aren’t this good and will take a step backwards next year.