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

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Two teams with a surplus of skill.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the Eastern Conference Final for the third time in four years and will face another perennial contender in the Washington Capitals. The series starts on Friday and both teams will be well rested. The Lightning eliminated the Boston Bruins in the fifth game of their series on Saturday while the Caps needed a sixth game to dispose of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday.

The Lightning are supposed to be here. Despite missing the playoffs last year, they entered this season as one of the favorites in the east and quickly justified that by looking like the best team in the league for the first half of the season.

The Capitals were less likely to be here. They had a rough off-season, losing multiple important players. They had to vanquish their nemesis, the Penguins, in the second round. For a team that has been among the best in the league for years, it seemed at times this season as though their window might be closing. They’ve kicked it back open for at least one more run.

Team Comparison

The Lightning had a clear advantage of the New Jersey Devils in the first round. The gap between the teams was evident on paper and on the ice. The second round series against the Bruins looked close on paper, but that didn’t translate to the games. The Lightning outshot the Bruins in every game and closed the series in five.

The third round offers a new and different challenge. In many ways, the Capitals are similar to the Lightning. The two teams share key strength areas that suggest that series could be difficult to project. But let’s dive into the numbers anyway. If we’re going to be wrong, let’s be specifically wrong.

The first chart we’ll use compares how the two teams played in the regular season. We’re about a month removed from the regular season so these numbers may seem stagnant but playoff numbers are heavily dependent on matchups so regular season totals still tell a better story than the playoffs. The data here is via the singular Corsica.Hockey. The bars represent the full season and the dots represent the last ten games of the season.

If we focus on 5v5 shot metrics, this series looks like a blowout. The Caps don’t even look like a playoff team. Washington was below average both offensively and defensively resulting in well below average shot and expected goal shares. Their expected goal numbers are especially bad and put them among the worst teams in the league by that measure.

The Lightning are the opposite. They had average offensive numbers and strong defensive numbers putting them among the best teams in the league in both shot and expected goal share. Purely by 5v5 shot metrics, the Devils look like a better team than the Caps.

What makes this series interesting is that shot metrics don’t tell the whole story for either of the teams. Both teams outperform their expected goal differential significantly because of shooting and/or goaltending talent. For the Lightning, the difference is primarily in shooting talent. They had average goaltending over the course of the year but shot a much higher percentage than would be expected.

The Caps buoyed their shot metrics with excellent shooting and goaltending. For much of the year, that goaltending came from Philipp Grubauer but in the playoffs, Braden Holtby has reclaimed his regular spot in the net and looks like his Vezina-caliber self again.

Shooting and goaltending are notoriously fickle and prone to fluctuations in small samples. Heading into a series where both teams rely on the most unpredictable part of the game to achieve success is a recipe for surprises. Both teams have the shooting talent to go on a scoring spree. The Caps have a goaltender capable of stealing the series. The wildcard could be Andrei Vasilevskiy who has flashed the ability to shut down good teams but has been inconsistent. He’ll be tested by the shooters on the Caps and whether he can handle those tests could be a key to the series.

On special teams, both teams again rely on their high-end talent to outscore expectations. Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos will be sharing an office during this series so look for plenty of explosive shots from the left circle. Both teams have also had inconsistent penalty kills so if either unit struggles, both teams have the talent to take advantage.

Skater Comparison

Having looked at the team totals, let’s now look at the individual skaters. The heat maps below show how each skater performed this season in some key metrics. All data is again via Corsica except for estimated shot assists, which come from the methodology here.

The Lightning have incredible depth at forward. They have three lines that can hang with any competition and a fourth line that features Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz. And while neither of those players are who they were at their peak, they’re still solid bookends for a fourth line.

The top six is so good that I’m not sure which is the top line anymore. Common sense says the top line is the one with Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Both are superstars in their prime who can score from anywhere. As great as they can be, the second line is matching them. Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Johnson have gelled into an exceptional two-way line. All three are capable in all three zones and not only neutralized the Bergeron line at 5v5 against Boston but got the better of them.

I write this in every preview but I’ll say it again for the people in the back: If you don’t know about Brayden Point yet, you’re gonna know soon. He scored the prettiest goal of the series against the Bruins, and he went head to head with Patrice Bergeron and won. He’s only 22 years old. I’m not sure what else to say about him at this pont.

One topic that isn’t getting enough discussion is the emergence of Anthony Cirelli as the third-line center. He doesn’t meet the ice-time requirements to be in the chart because he came up so late in the year but he’s made a big difference. The Lightning had a hole in their top-nine all season. His ability to slot in with Yanni Gourde and Alex Killorn has given the Lightning three full lines that can play against anyone. For him to be filling this big of a role including playing on the penalty kill this early in his career is impressive.

On the blue line, the Lightning have three players they trust and three players they manage. Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Anton Stralman will play a ton of minutes. For most of the game, at least one of them will be on the ice. Dan Girardi, Braydon Coburn, and Mikhail Sergachev will all play fewer minutes in specific roles. Girardi and Coburn are used more to protect leads and on the penalty kill. Sergachev will continue to run the second power play unit and see more minutes when the Lightning need offense.

While I could nitpick the blue line rotation and advocate for more minutes for Sergachev, the deployment seems to be working. The coaches have decided that the best way to win is by riding their three thoroughbreds and so far, that approach has worked well.

Switching over to Washington, we see a team with plenty of top end talent but not quite the depth of the Lightning in the bottom six.

The Caps’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Tom Wilson (vom) has been great. I don’t think we need to spend too much time on Ovechkin here. He’s one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the NHL. And maybe the greatest if we consider the era he plays in. Kuznetsov is one of the best playmakers in the league and they form a dangerous duo together. Tom Wilson does Tom Wilson things, which I guess is helpful. He scored a career high 35 points this season so that’s something.

The Caps also possess a dangerous second line driven by Nicklas Backstrom. And if you don’t like Nick Backstrom, you don’t like hockey. He has one of the prettiest, most well-rounded games in the league. He does everything well. I’m pretty sure I could score a goal if he was my center and I can barely skate.

Backstrom is currently injured but is listed as day to day. Andre Burakovsky is also hurt but looks like he might be ready soon. He would likely slot into the middle six and improve the Caps depth.

The Caps bottom six is where they start to fall in little short in matching up with the Lightning. Assuming Backstrom and Burakovsky return, the Caps third line is centered by Lars Eller. He’s a good player, but after that, it gets pretty thin. Brett Connolly, Devante Smith-Pelly, Jay Beagle, etc. all seem like players who would struggle matching up to the Bolts’ bottom six.

On the blue line, the Caps have two strong pairs. John Carlson drives the “top pair” with Michal Kempny. But whether that’s really the top pair is up for debate. Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen usually draw the tough matchups and Orlov played the most minutes this season. However we define it, they have two strong pairs that can skate with the Lightning.

The bottom pair is where it gets dicey. Brooks Orpik has bright orange heat map. Christian Djoos was good during the regular season but has struggled during the playoffs while paired with Orpik.

Both teams’ top sixes are full of goals and that will likely be where the game is decided. But if they end up playing to a stalemate and it comes down to the depth players, the Lightning appear to have an edge there.

Season Series Breakdown

We’ve looked at the teams as a whole. We’ve looked at the individual skaters. Now, let’s look at how these teams played against one another during the regular season. This chart shows score and venue (home/away) adjusted shot and expected goal numbers for the three head to head games these teams played this season. The Lightning won two of the three games.

The first thing that I notice here is that the three games were close. The Lightning outshot the caps and generated more expected goals but not by a wide margin. They also scored more actual goals but again, it was close. We don’t want to read too much into regular-season series as evidenced by the first two rounds of the playoffs but there’s nothing here that would suggest any major differences from what we saw above.

One unusual thing is that Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz had wild shot differentials. That was driven mostly by the two games they played against the Caps early in the season. Much of the damage was done against the fourth line but in the game in November, Callahan and Kunitz spent some time against the Caps top line and got the better of that matchup as well.

While three regular season games don’t mean much, the differential here is big enough that I’ll be interested to see how the Lightning fourth line performs in this series. Having anything close to the advantage they had in the regular season games would be a nice boost when the top lines aren’t on the ice.

Conclusion

This series features tons of skill. Stamkos, Kucherov, Point, Hedman, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstrom. Those are some of the most fun players to watch in the entire sport. With them on the ice, we’re almost guaranteed to see some special displays of offensive talent.

In addition to talent, this series also features plenty of storylines. Both teams will be looking for redemption. The Lighting want to prove last year was an anomaly and finish what they started three years ago. The Capitals have suffered through some of the most frustrating playoff defeats in NHL history. Ovechkin deserves a championship and he’s never been closer than he is now.

One of these teams will get the chance to achieve the ultimate goal. But only one. And the first step towards advancing starts on Friday.