The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in the past four seasons, while the Washington Capitals are making an appearance for the first time in 20 years. Let’s break down every angle of the penultimate matchup.
How they got here
Tampa Bay: The Lightning dismantled the New Jersey Devils in five games and then proceeded to make quick work of the Boston Bruins as well.
Washington: After dropping the first two games of the series in OT, the Capitals won four straight to defeat the Blue Jackets. They kept the momentum going by ousting the Pens, along with their playoff demons, in six games.
Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Miller are as dangerous as it gets when it comes to first lines, but what makes Tampa Bay tough to beat is their depth. Their second line of Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat produced at a high level and did a phenomenal job limiting the Bruins first line as well (look for them to be matched up against the Kuzy-OV-Wilson trio). Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde have tilted the ice the Lightning’s way on multiple occasions this postseason. Veterans Chris Kunitz and Ryan Callahan form a productive fourth line with agitator Cedric Paquette.
Washington: Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov have been quite the dynamic duo this postseason. Look for them to be even more productive this series as linemate Tom Wilson will be back after serving a three-game suspension. Nicklas Backstrom continues to prove that he is one of the most talented passers in the NHL, while TJ Oshie has been a shot-taking machine in the slot and Chandler Stephenson provided the team with much-needed intensity. Centers Lars Eller and Jay Beagle have led their lines to be productive despite not having much experience around them. Brett Connolly, Jakub Vrana, Devante-Smith Pelly and Alex Chiasson round out the forward group for DC.
Advantage: Tampa Bay. Their third and fourth lines and the Backstrom injury are what give them the advantage in this category.
Tampa Bay: Victor Hedman headlines this strong group of defensemen, averaging 26:04 minutes of ice-time per game. Playoff veterans Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman are all familiar with the Capitals from their time in New York. Braydon Coburn and Mikhail Sergachev round out the defensive pairings.
Washington: With 11 points in 12 games, John Carlson continues to prove he is an elite two-way defenseman. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov have been solid on both sides of the ice as well. The third pairing of Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos will look to be more productive in this series than they were against the Penguins.
Advantage: Tampa Bay. The experience factor plays a huge role here.
Tampa Bay: Andrei Vasilevsky is 8-2 with a 2.20 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage in 10 games. The Vezina Trophy finalist was 4-0 with a 1.73 GAA and .936 save percentage in Games 2-5 against the Bruins in the second round.
Washington: Braden Holtby has been sensational this postseason and the Capitals are going to need him to continue his success for them to have a chance against the Lightning. He is 8-3 (8-2 as the starter) with a 2.04 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.
Advantage: Even. Both goaltenders are playing at an elite level and both have the capability of single-handedly propelling their team to victory.
Tampa Bay: The Lightning have had the fourth-best power play in the postseason, boasting a power play percentage of 26.3% (10-for-33). The number of weapons Tampa Bay possesses make it difficult to defend. However, their penalty kill has not been as formidable during the postseason with a penalty kill percentage of 74.2%.
Washington: The Capitals are second in the playoffs with a power play percentage of 30.9% (13-for-42). Backstrom and Kuznetsov facilitate the puck with brilliance. TJ Oshie works his magic in the slot and OV is lights out from the circle. Their penalty kill percentage currently sits at 79.1%.
Advantage: Washington. Both teams cannot afford to get caught taking too many penalties, but the Caps more effective penalty kill gives them the slight edge.
Tampa Bay: The Lightning are healthy and well-rested. Forward Adam Erne is the lone player on the injury report.
Washington: Nicklas Backstrom remains day-to-day due to a hand injury that forced him to miss the series clincher against Pittsburgh, and Andre Burakovsky (hand injury) is now considered to be week-to-week.
Advantage: Tampa Bay. If Backstrom is out for an extended period of time, it will be tough for Washington to match the depth of Lightning.
Tampa Bay: Ryan McDonagh. McDonagh has proven before that he is capable of limiting Ovechkin’s production in the playoffs. If he can do it again, the Lightning will be in great shape.
Washington: Tom Wilson. The first line forward has seven points through nine games and has been an effective penalty-killer for the Capitals. He will need to maintain his aggressiveness while keeping a level head to be effective against Tampa Bay.
Washington in six. It’s tough to explain because on paper the Lightning should win this series, but there is just something about this Capitals team that I cannot pick against. The Caps have responded to each moment of adversity and I do not see that changing in this series.