For the Tampa Bay Lightning, trips to the Eastern Conference Final are becoming the norm. On Sunday, the Lightning clinched their spot in the third round for the third time in four seasons by toppling the Boston Bruins. On the other side of the spectrum, the Washington Capitals find themselves in unfamiliar territory. They defeated their long-time nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins, thus ensuring their first conference final appearance since 1998.
Having vanquished opponents that have long given them trouble, both the Lightning and Capitals seek Eastern Conference supremacy and a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. Entering the 2017-18 season, both teams held high expectations of varying degrees. Following an unexpected playoff miss last season, many expected the Bolts to be a bounce-back Stanley Cup contender. Up to this point, Tampa Bay has lived up to that billing, having dispatched the New Jersey Devils and Boston in the first two rounds of the playoffs in five games each.
On the heels of back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy-winning seasons ending in playoff disappointment, the Capitals made a few changes to their roster. Since the Alex Ovechkin era began in 2005, the Caps have become synonymous with falling short of expectations over the years, and it appeared as though they would take a slight step back this season despite still being expected to make the postseason again. Instead, Washington arrives in the conference final when hockey fans and pundits gave up on them being legitimate Cup contenders. They rallied from an 0-2 deficit in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, winning four straight to take the series in six games. In the second round, they beat the two-time defending Cup champion Penguins in six games after Pittsburgh knocked Washington out of the second round of the playoffs in the previous two seasons.
As a result, the Lightning and Capitals, the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference, will hook up for their third all-time meeting in the postseason. Will Tampa Bay continue their dominant march towards a Stanley Cup championship? Or will Washington build off their huge victory over Pittsburgh and pull off the upset?
Tampa Bay: 2-1-0
The Lightning took the only meeting in Amalie Arena by a 4-3 score in overtime on October 9. Brayden Point notched the game-winner while Nikita Kucherov tied the game in the third period. Tampa Bay trailed 2-0 after one period. On November 24, the Capitals came away 3-1 winners at Capital One Arena thanks to goals by Ovechkin, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Jay Beagle. The Lightning took the final meeting, also at Capital One Arena, by a 4-2 score on February 20. Point scored twice, Kucherov notched a memorable highlight-reel goal, and Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 35 shots.
Team Stats in Playoffs
Tampa Bay: 26.3 PP% (4th), 74.2% (11th), 35 GF (6th), 25 GA (8th)
Washington: 30.9 PP% (2nd), 79.1 PK% (8th), 43 GF (1st), 32 GA (13th)
Advanced Stats at 5-on-5 in Playoffs (via corsica.hockey)
Tampa Bay: 54.33 CF% (1st), 61.29 GF% (2nd), 94.37 Save% (3rd), 7.76 SH% (T-8th), 102.12 PDO (2nd)
Washington: 49.71 CF% (8th), 54.55 GF% (6th), 93.06 Save% (7th), 8.14 SH% (5th), 101.19 PDO (5th)
Keys to the Series
-Washington’s power play vs. Tampa Bay’s penalty kill
In the first round, the Bolts’ penalty kill, which struggled in the regular season, killed off 84.2% of New Jersey’s power plays. Facing a much more dangerous Boston power play in the second round, Tampa Bay’s PK percentage dropped to 74.2%. However, the Lightning came up with a pair of crucial penalty kills at key points in the series. This was highlighted by killing off a 5-on-3 for 1:45 in the first period of Game 2 and a big kill of a late Boston power play in the final minutes of their Game 5 clincher.
On the other side, Washington owns the best remaining power play in the playoffs at 30.9%. The Caps possess multiple options while owning the man-advantage. While Ovechkin’s one-timers from the left circle remain dangerous, T.J. Oshie usually camps out in the slot, Nicklas Backstrom hangs out in the right circle, and John Carlson can blast shots from the point. Tampa Bay may not kill off every penalty in this series, but limiting the damage while down a man will go a long way in determining the final outcome.
-Which team will control the 5-on-5 action?
Throughout the playoffs, no team has been as dominant at 5-on-5 as the Lightning have. Even the Bruins, one of the best teams at even-strength this season, had no answer for the Lightning’s play at 5-on-5. Tampa Bay didn’t allow a single even-strength goal over the final 187:20 of the series, a span including the final three games. In addition, they didn’t allow a single 5-on-5 goal by a Boston forward after the end of Game 1 of that series. Conversely, Washington was below-average at even-strength in the first round, but picked up their 5-on-5 play considerably against Pittsburgh in Round 2. Although Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel did some damage, the Caps did a tremendous job of keeping Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel in check. Their task becomes much tougher this round against the incredible depth the Lightning possess up front.
-Will the Lightning’s depth continue to shine?
Tampa Bay tallied 17 goals by 11 different players in the second round against Boston. Point led the way with seven points against Boston. His line, featuring him between Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, helped keep the Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak to 12 points over the final four games of the series after allowing them to combine for 11 in Game 1. Tampa Bay’s bottom two lines were also a force against Boston, while the top line of Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and J.T. Miller finally woke up over the final two-and-a-half games.
The Capitals don’t have as much depth as past years, but despite being a little more top-heavy, they’re still receiving major contributions from their stars. Ovechkin is sixth among all players in playoff scoring with 15 points (eight goals, seven assists), while Evgeny Kuznetsov has chipped in seven goals and 14 points and Nicklas Backstrom notched 10 assists and 13 points through two rounds. Point’s line will likely be tasked with shutting down the Caps’ top line, which features Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.
-Vasilevskiy vs. Holtby
Entering the playoffs, Caps goalie Braden Holtby lost his job to backup Philip Grubauer following the worst regular season of his career. However, Grubauer failed to come up with the big save when needed in the opening round. With the Capitals trailing Columbus 0-2, Washington turned over the crease back to Holtby. Since then, the former Vezina Trophy winner has been incredible in the postseason. Posting a save percentage of .926 and a goals-against average of 2.04 through the first two rounds, Holtby’s effort is a large reason why the Caps have made it this far.
On the other end of the ice, Vasilevskiy has been rock-solid between the pipes for the Lightning. A Vezina Trophy finalist, Vasilevskiy hasn’t had to be spectacular in the playoffs through two rounds. But when the Lightning have committed a rare defensive breakdown in the postseason, Vasilevskiy has shut the door on multiple occasions. Through two rounds, he has compiled a 2.20 GAA and a .927 save percentage. While both teams are capable of putting up big offensive numbers, this series will hinge on which goalie comes up with the most timely saves.
-The experience factor
Tampa Bay’s roster features 17 players with a combined 278 games of experience in the conference final. Forward Chris Kunitz leads the way with 26, as he played on Pittsburgh’s Cup teams the last two years and has four Cup rings in his career. Defenseman Anton Stralman has taken part in 25 conference final games, while fellow blue-liners Braydon Coburn and Victor Hedman have each played in 21 Eastern Conference Final contests. Overall, 11 Bolts players who suited up in the 2015 ECF against the New York Rangers will wear Lightning uniforms in Game 1 of this series. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper’s record in conference final games is 7-7.
Meanwhile, Washington’s experience in the conference final pales in comparison. Having made it to the third round for the first time in 20 years, Washington has only three players with any conference final experience: defensemen Brooks Orpik (13) and Matt Niskanen (nine), along with center Lars Eller (six), combine for just 28 games worth of appearances in any conference final games. Caps head coach Barry Trotz is in his 19th season as an NHL head coach, having made the playoffs 11 times. However, this will be his first time behind the bench in the third round of the playoffs.
Tampa Bay – The defensive corps
Although Point’s line received much of the credit for shutting down Boston’s top line in Round 2, the Lightning’s defensive corps also played a large part in that effort as well. Entering the postseason, the Lightning have found three pairings that have worked incredibly well. While Hedman has yet to score, he’s compiled six assists and is an elite force at both ends. Dan Girardi, serving as Hedman’s partner, was an unlikely offensive hero last round, scoring a pair of goals, including the OT winner in Game 4. The play of Ryan McDonagh and Stralman on the middle pairing has taken a big load off Hedman, keeping him fresh by taking on plenty of important shutdown minutes. In addition, the third pairing of Coburn and rookie Mikhail Sergachev has been outstanding in limited minutes. This group will have to continue their stellar play against Washington’s star power up front.
Washington – Their health
Backstrom missed Game 6 against Pittsburgh in Round 2 due to a hand injury, and he has yet to practice since Washington advanced to the conference final. So far, Washington has kept Backstrom’s status a mystery leading up to Game 1. All indications are that he will travel with the team to Tampa for the start of the series. If he’s forced to miss any more time due to injury, that would leave a severe gap in their top six forwards and on their power play, as well as affecting their ability to match up with the Lightning. That would put even more pressure on Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Oshie to carry the offensive burden.
While both of these teams are not carbon copies of each other, they each have an incredible amount of skill. The Lightning are smaller and have a little more speed, and although the Caps are bigger, they aren’t slow by any means. Even though Washington tends to play with more of a physical edge, the Bolts have shown they’re willing to play a physically imposing game in the postseason as well. Both teams are stout in the crease, while the Lightning hold the edge in depth up and down their lineup. Although 5-on-5 play will be incredibly important, the special teams could be a major turning point in this series.
Tampa Bay has been down this road before, as they’re in the Eastern Conference Final for the third time in four years and the fourth time since 2011. Meanwhile, Washington is coming off the euphoric high of upending their hated rivals in Pittsburgh after years of playoff disappointments. The Lightning expected to get this far, and that experience will be something they’ll lean on at this point of the playoffs. However, how Washington reacts to finally getting over the second round hump will be worth watching. Will they continue to build on the momentum or have they already emotionally peaked after knocking off the two-time defending champions? Either way, this should be a long, competitive series. Ultimately, I believe the Lightning’s depth wins out in the end, putting them in the Stanley Cup Final.
Prediction: Lightning in six games.
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