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2018 Eastern Conference Final Preview: Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

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2018 Eastern Conference Final Preview: Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Alex Ovechkin and Anton Stralman Image by: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

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2018 Eastern Conference Final Preview: Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Hockey News
By:

Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: How They Win, 5 Things To Watch, THN Series Prediction and Playoff Depth Charts.

There was a time not all that long ago, back during the days of the “South Least” Division, where a Washington Capitals-Tampa Bay Lightning Eastern Conference final would have sounded like more of a punchline than a prediction. But fast forward a decade-plus and the two squads left standing in the East are former divisional foes from what was once a laughing-stock division.

Since the divisional split, there’s not much history between the two sides, but there are some similarities. Offensively, both are by big-time playmakers and sharpshooting snipers. Defensively, both teams have their deficiencies. In goal, not much has separated the two starters throughout their respective post-season runs. And now leaders of their own divisions — top seeds in the Metropolitan and Atlantic, respectively — whoever wins this battle of the past divisional rivals will win the Eastern Conference crown and earn the chance to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Why The Capitals Win
There aren’t many teams that can keep up with the Lightning shot-for-shot, goal-for-goal, but the Capitals have proven over the course of the post-season that they are most certainly one. Up against a top-10 defensive club in the first round, the Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington dented twine 24 times in six games and then proceeded to beat Pittsburgh Penguins’ two-time Stanley Cup-winning netminder Matt Murray 19 times across a seven-game set, making him look somewhat pedestrian in the process. Alex Ovechkin has been tremendous, Evgeny Kuznetsov has been equally as difficult to stop and if Nicklas Backstrom is healthy enough to suit up, Washington’s top-six has enough weapons to offset the power of Tampa Bay’s top two lines.

The Capitals might also have the edge if the series ends up boiling down to goaltending. While he didn’t start Game 1 of the post-season, Braden Holtby is ensuring his tough regular season will be forgotten. He’s posted eight wins in 10 starts, all the while boasting a .926 save percentage. But playoff Holtby can be a game-changer in every single start. Only one goaltender with more than 50 games played in NHL playoff history, Tim Thomas, has a better career post-season SP than Holtby’s .931 mark.

Why The Lightning Win
If it wasn’t for a lull in the back half of the season, Tampa Bay, who were long seen as the Presidents’ Trophy frontrunners, probably could have sealed the deal and taken the prize as the regular season’s top team. They didn’t, of course, but that they were in the mix speaks to the dominance the Lightning have shown throughout the campaign.

Offensively, Tampa Bay is going to be a handful. As if stopping Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov with any consistency isn’t difficult enough, the play of Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and J.T. Miller through the first two rounds of the post-season gives reason to believe the entire Lightning top-six will give even the best of defensive units fits. Keep in mind, there’s no mention there of Tyler Johnson or rookie standout Yanni Gourde. That’s how deep the attack is in Tampa Bay.

What stands to put the Lightning over the top and back into the Stanley Cup final for the second time in four years, however, is the defense corps. Bolstered at the deadline with the acquisition of Ryan McDonagh, Tampa Bay now has a top-three on their blueline that’s as rock-solid as any team remaining in the title picture. Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman can take over a game at either end of the ice, Anton Stralman continues to provide a steadying force on the blueline and a former weakness for the Lightning now appears to be one of their strengths.

Five Things To Watch
1. The series could turn on Holtby vs. Andrei Vasilevskiy. While the Capitals’ ‘Holtbeast’ has been a standout from the moment he’s taken the crease this post-season, Vasilevskiy hasn’t been too shabby himself. His .927 SP is a hair better than Holtby’s, though Vasilevskiy did post a mere .909 SP against the Bruins in Round 2.

2. The offensive weapons are going to need the puck on their stick to be effective. So, the good news for the Bolts is that they’ve been a far superior possession team to the Capitals and more dominant in every 5-on-5 underlying statistic, be it shots, shot attempts, scoring chances or high-danger chances.

3. Penalties could prove incredibly costly. The Capitals have the top power play of any team remaining in the post-season and are clipping along at 30.9 percent with the man advantage. The Lightning aren’t far off, though, with the second-best unit left standing at a 26.3 percent success rate.

4. What role does depth play? The Lightning have been getting production throughout their lineup, but the Capitals haven’t exactly been bereft of scoring in their bottom-six, either, with eight goals coming from players who have averaged less than 14 minutes of ice time. If the top pairings cancel out the top-sixes, a goal from the likes of Washington’s Brett Connolly or Tampa Bay’s Anthony Cirelli could be huge.

5. One of John Carlson, Matt Niskanen or Dmitry Orlov might be on the ice at all times. Each of the top-three Capitals rearguards could easily play 30 minutes per game for the duration of the series in an attempt to cancel out the Lightning’s powerful top six. The same goes for Tampa Bay’s top defensemen, too, but the Lightning have a deeper blueline than the Capitals, who will trot out Brooks Orpik, Michal Kempny and Christian Djoos to round out the back end.

THN Series Prediction: Lightning in six.

LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES:

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2018 Eastern Conference Final Preview: Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning