have thinned the field of teams battling for a championship down to just four. After some earlier rounds of insanity, it's time to shift our focus towards the conference finals.
Our experts weigh in with their picks for the Eastern and Western Conference Final:
(1) Golden Knights vs. (2) Stars
Chris Bengel: I've really liked what I've seen from this Stars team in these playoffs. Sure, they had a few hiccups when facing the Kraken in the second round, but Dallas rose to the occasion when they needed to. There's one major difference when it comes to the Golden Knights and Stars: goaltending. Jake Oettinger has showcased his ability as an elite netminder when the lights are the brightest. According to Money Puck, he leads all postseason goaltenders with a .957 save percentage when facing unblocked shots.
On top of that, the Stars have a very dangerous offense, which includes the postseason's second leading scorer Roope Hintz. I'm banking on Oettinger to shine and the Stars to do enough to take this series.
Pick -- Stars beat Golden Knights 4-3
Austin Nivison: The Golden Knights have a five-on-five goal differential of plus-15. That is the best of any team in the postseason by several country miles. But according to their expected goal numbers on Natural Stat Trick, that differential should really be closer to plus-1. Vegas has the talent to outperform its underlying numbers, but by that much? Call me skeptical.
On the other hand, the Stars have gotten worse results than their performance would suggest. Dallas ranks first in five-on-five expected goal share (55.5%), but its actual goal differential in those situations is just plus-1.Jack Eichel has certainly been a bright spot this postseason, and Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy may have found something by putting him on a line with Ivan Barbashev and Jonathan Marchessault. However, the Stars do seem like the more talented team coming into the series.
Roope Hintz has emerged as a superstar with 19 points in 13 games, and Joe Pavelski is playing like he is 28 -- not 38. Jason Robertson has only found the back of the net twice, and if he can get going, that makes Dallas even more dangerous. The only thing giving me pause about picking the Stars is that Jake Oettinger has been somewhat shaky this postseason, and Adin Hill came out of nowhere to provide elite goaltending for the Golden Knights. I'm betting those trends won't continue, and the Stars reach the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in four years.
Pick -- Stars beat Golden Knights 4-2
(1) Hurricanes vs. (WC2) Panthers
Bengel: No one expected this matchup --especially the Panthers going this far. But I'm going to focus on the Hurricanes. The deck was stacked against Carolina, already being without star forwards Max Pacioretty and Andrei Svechnikov entering the postseason. On top of that, winger Teuvo Teravainen suffered a hand injury that sidelined him for the Devils series, but it looks like he should return at some point in this series. Some may say that the Panthers have the advantage, especially considering how Sergei Bobrovsky has played in net. However, Frederik Andersen has been strong throughout the postseason with a 1.80 goals-against-average and allowed two goals or fewer in four of the five games against the Devils.
With Teravainen likely returning and the Hurricanes offense clicking on all cylinders, I'm taking Carolina to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.
Pick -- Hurricanes beat Panthers 4-2
Nivison: Carolina is here on the strength of its team defense, goaltending and balance on offense. Jordan Martinook, Jesper Fast, and Seth Jarvis have stepped up to aid Sebastian Aho in the goal-scoring deprtment. Jaccob Slavin and Brent Burns have formed the best defensive pair in the postseason, earning a 59.9% expected goals share and a plus-10 goal differential at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. Expect them to see a lot of Matthew Tkachuk, who willed Florida into the postseason and beyond.
In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky put on a show against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round. With Frederik Andersen playing well in net for Carolina, I don't think there is a huge goaltending edge either way. I do think defense will decide this series, and while Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce have struggled for the Canes, they might be the deeper team on the blue line. Marc Staal has played big minutes for the Panthers, and he has not handled it well. Staal has been getting caved in to the tune of a paltry 43.8% five-on-five expected goals share. Against a strong possession team like Carolina, that could mean bad news for Florida. This will be a close series, but the Hurricanes' strong defensive structure gets it done.
Pick -- Hurricanes beat Panthers 4-3