Maybe bubble hockey wasn’t so out of the ordinary after all?
When the third round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs begins on Sunday, three of the four remaining teams in the quest for the championship return for the second consecutive season. That hasn’t happened in almost 30 years.
In 1991, the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Boston Bruins in six games in the Eastern Conference Final. In the West, the Minnesota North Stars defeated the Edmonton Oilers in five. The Penguins beat the North Stars in six games to capture the first Stanley Cup of their franchise.
A year later, the Penguins swept the Bruins to claim the 1992 Prince of Wales Trophy, while the Chicago Blackhawks swept the Oilers. Pittsburgh then eliminated Chicago in four games to become a back-to-back champion.
Lightning and islanders meet again
It’s a pattern the Tampa Bay Lightning hope to replicate. After emerging from this year’s restructured Central Division with close victories over the Florida Panthers and the Carolina Hurricanes, the defending champs now face a third-round rematch against the New York Islanders.
Nine months ago, the Lightning knocked out the Islanders in six games in a fanless bubble in Edmonton, Alberta. On Sunday (3pm ET), they will begin the series in front of an arena almost full of fans dressed in blue, who are urged to ‘Be The Thunder’.
Local health authorities have granted Lightning permission to perform 14,800 tickets available for the Stanley Cup Semifinal. That’s an increase of about 1,000 from Round 2, and represents 78% of normal capacity in the noisy Amalie Arena.
The hostile crowds they faced in previous rounds at Sunrise and Raleigh were large and rabid. But the Lightning could meet an entirely different beast when it lands on Long Island for Games 3 and 4 (Thursday and Saturday, both at 8 p.m. ET).
Long-suffering fans missed the chance to cheer on their New York Islanders during last season’s surprise race, the first time the club reached the Eastern Conference Finals since 1993, when they defeated defending champions Pittsburgh in the second round. .
This is the club’s final season at the Nassau Coliseum, before it moves to the state-of-the-art UBS Arena in Belmont Park, which is worth more than a billion dollars. The loyal fans, whose love for the club dates back to the four-championship dynasty of the early 1980s, are doing their best to give the old barn a proper sendoff, with 12,000 loud and proud spectators allowed in an intimate building that it typically seats 13,917.
With 75 points from 56 games, the Lightning finished third in the Central Division this year and eighth overall. The Islanders finished their season fourth in the East Division with 71 points and eleventh overall.
And while this year’s division game means Tampa Bay and New York haven’t met since last September in Edmonton, the two teams have some playoff history, and it’s lopsided. This will be their fourth meeting. The Lightning have won all three previous meetings: in five games in Round 1 in 2004, in five games in Round 2 in 2016 and in six games last year. In both 2004 and 2020, Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup.
Hockey royalty vs gold upstarts
If the atmosphere on Long Island is going to be overloaded, what words describe Las Vegas? The Golden Knights are back in Round 3 for the second year in a row, and the third time in their short four-year existence. This time, they will face the NHL’s most storied franchise in the Montreal Canadiens.
In classic Las Vegas style, somehow the Golden Knights’ reported attendance numbers for their three home games against the Colorado Avalanche in Round 2 were in excess of T-Mobile Arena’s declared total capacity of 17,500 for hockey. After falling 0-2 en route to the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Avalanche, the Golden Knights began their impressive four-game comeback with a 3-2 victory over 17,504 fans in Game 3. They dominated by a score of 5-1 in front of 18,081 viewers in Game 4, then regained Game 5 in Denver before sealing the series with a deafening 18,149 fans within ‘The Fortress’ for Game 6.
In last season’s Edmonton bubble, the Golden Knights’ normally reliable scoring touch was put to the test in a grueling seven-game second-round series against the Vancouver Canucks. He did not return in time for them to fight meaningfully against the Dallas Stars, who eliminated them in five games.
In this round, they face the lowest ranked team in the playoffs. But Montreal could have fate on its side.
The Stars are the only 2020 bubble team that will not return to the final four. They missed the playoffs entirely, finishing fifth in the NL Central and 17th overall.
But two Stars team players who lost to the Lightning in six games in the Stanley Cup final have played an important role for their new teams in the postseason. They will now go head-to-head in Round 3.
Mattias Janmark, 28, signed with the Chicago Blackhawks as an unrestricted free agent before being traded to the Golden Knights at the trade deadline. He scored a hat trick in the seventh game that he secured in the first round in Las Vegas against the Minnesota Wild. And despite missing three Round 2 games with an upper body injury, Janmark has scored seven points in 10 games so far for Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, 36-year-old Corey Perry has improved his game again in the playoffs. Signing as a free agent with Montreal during the offseason, he has six points in 11 games so far, including the series-winning goal against Toronto in Round 1.
Fourth-place finishers in the Canadian Northern Division, the Canadiens’ 59 points in 56 games actually put them one point behind Dallas in the league standings, at 18th place. But after falling behind 3-1 in In their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs are bringing a seven-game winning streak to Las Vegas after eliminating Toronto and then sweeping the Winnipeg Jets.
As all Vegas players know, when you’re hot, you have to let it go.
The Canadiens can have 24 wins in the Stanley Cup, the highest in the league. Still, the Las Vegas atmosphere might not be like anything you’ve ever seen before. The 2,500 fans they’ve had at Bell Center during their last three games won’t have done much to prepare them for the chaos to come, right off the Las Vegas Strip.
Montreal was the first team in Canada to officially welcome fans, beginning with Game 6 of their first-round series against the Leafs. The club has requested increased capacity by hosting the Golden Knights for Games 3 and 4 of the semifinal (Friday and Sunday at 8 pm ET). The application is currently being reviewed by provincial health authorities.
Last week, the federal government of Canada also granted a waiver that allows cross border travel for both computers without quarantine, subject to a detailed list of mandatory protocols.
When the puck drops in Las Vegas for Game 1 on Monday (9 p.m. ET), the Canadiens will become the first NHL team north of the border to play in a US stadium since March 2020.
And as the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup (1993), Montreal is also the first Canadian team to reach the third round since the Ottawa Senators did in 2017.
Not only have Vegas and Montreal never met in a playoff series; They have only faced each other six times in history. Montreal is 5-1-0 in those games, with three of those wins in overtime or a shootout. The Golden Knights’ only victory came in their inaugural season, a 6-3 win at T-Mobile Arena on February 17, 2018.