The 2018 NHL Playoffs have played out just as everyone had envisioned it would. Well, maybe not so much. The Western Conference Finals features two franchises (Vegas and Winnipeg) that have never been in either the Conference Finals or the Stanley Cup Finals, while the East features one familiar organization matched up against a historically underachieving city.
The Washington Capitals ended a 20-year Eastern Conference Finals drought by defeating the reigning Cup champs, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in six games. They will open up the third round tonight on the road as they travel to Tampa Bay, taking on a Lightning team that lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals .
How They Got Here
Not only did the Washington Capitals end a 20-year drought, but they also snapped an 0-11 conference championship appearance streak for all Washington major sports teams (Redskins, Nationals, Wizards and Capitals) in elimination/close-out games. In the first round, the Caps defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games after getting down two games to none. Round two was similar, Washington dropped Game 1 at home and then alternated games with Pittsburgh until claiming Game 5 and stealing Game 6 on the road. The Capitals were finally able to slay the Penguins for the first time in three consecutive years in the second round.
Tampa Bay is seeking their first Stanley Cup title since 2004 and have looked like the most well-rounded team in 2018. They dominated the New Jersey Devils in five games in the first round, while also knocking off a surging Boston Bruins team in as many games in round two. Tampa made a blockbuster trade with the New York Rangers minutes before the February NHL trade deadline, acquiring veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh. The Bolts have the strongest defensive core remaining out of all four teams and are the only team to have a Vezina Trophy finalist on their roster in Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Keys to Victory
Washington is led by the 11-time All-Star, Alex Ovechkin. He leads the Capitals in playoff points (15) and goals (8). Ovechkin must get going early if the Capitals will have any shot of taking down the highly-favored Lightning. Braden Holtby must continue to stand tall in the crease as he did in rounds one and two, because without him elevating his play it will be a quick, four or five game outing in Tampa’s favor. Washington must also execute on their power play opportunities if they are going to have any chance. The Capitals have the second-best power play percentage in the playoffs, running at 30.9 percent. If they can get Nicklas Backstrom back for Game 3, and that is a big if, then Washington has a legitimate shot at the Cup.
Tampa Bay not only has to shut down Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov’s first line, but they also have to worry about T.J. Oshie’s second unit as well. The Lightning’s Defense is highlighted by McDonagh, Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev. If these three can shut down Washington’s top two lines they will be just fine. Tampa has the slight edge in goaltending with Vasilevskiy, and if he can continue his strong postseason play the Lightning offense will be able to provide enough fire power in front of him to win. Tampa is the most balanced scoring team in this matchup as they have six skaters with six or more points. With Backstrom sidelined the Lightning also have the slight advantage up front.
This series will come down to goaltending, what teams power play can produce the most and what depth players will step up and contribute offensively. Washington must limit the J.T. Miller–Steven Stamkos–Nikita Kucherov line as scoring will be a difficult task to come by against this defensively deep Lightning unit. Ovechkin will rise to the occasion and dominate this series, but the Lightning are just too well-rounded to bet against.
Tampa Bay over Washington in six games.