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Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 3: Initial thoughts and predictions on Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

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The Washington Capitals finally defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in a playoff series and will face their old Southeast Division rival for the Eastern Conference crown.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Initial Reaction

The Pittsburgh Penguins were ousted by the Washington Capitals last night in overtime. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the series winning goal on a breakaway after Alex Ovechkin recovered a loose puck in his defensive zone. Kuznetsov slid the puck beneath Matt Murray’s left pad to secure Washington their first trip to the conference final in 20 years.

The Eastern Conference’s final two teams are now established: Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning. Two former Southeast Division rivals going at it to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup Final.

Bring. It. On.

As I mentioned on the Charged Up podcast (out at 2pm today!), it doesn’t matter who Tampa Bay plays. As long as they stick to their game they should be able to defeat whomever they face in the conference final.

Pittsburgh posed a slightly more dangerous matchup with Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, and Matt Murray bolstering their lineup. However, don’t think the Washington Capitals are not deadly in their own way. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, and Braden Holtby anchor a Capitals team that saw a lot of overhaul during the offseason. It’s slightly fitting that the Capitals finally got over their second-round curse with a roster constructed with some younger and quicker players than the loaded (on paper) roster they had during last season’s playoffs.

Regardless, the Lightning will be the favored team in this series (and if any media head says otherwise they’re simply underestimating Tampa Bay yet again). This isn’t meant to disrespect the Capitals, but Tampa Bay was the top seed in the Eastern Conference for a reason, and they just dispatched a Boston team that many favored to win the East.

For those wondering, the Lightning went 2-1-0 against the Capitals this season. They outscored Washington 9-8 during the regular season series. This is also where I remind everyone that the regular season match-up means absolutely nothing in the postseason (I said the same thing for both the New Jersey and Boston series). It’s great to see Washington finally conquer their demons against Pittsburgh, but I still believe Tampa Bay will come out on top in the conference final.

Raw Stats

Washington vs. Tampa Bay

Team GP W L GF GA GF/PG GA/PG PP% PK% Shots For/PG Shots Allowed/PG FOW%
Team GP W L GF GA GF/PG GA/PG PP% PK% Shots For/PG Shots Allowed/PG FOW%
Tampa Bay Lightning 10 8 2 35 25 3.5 2.5 26.30% 74.20% 32.2 30.4 51.80%
Washington Capitals 12 8 4 43 32 3.58 2.67 30.90% 79.10% 32.8 30.1 48%

In raw numbers, this looks like it could be a rather even match. Both teams’ goals-for and against are remarkably close and their special teams efficiency are closer than I initially expected. Washington clearly has the power-play advantage, and their penalty kill isn’t far off from their regular season efficiency (80.3% during the season). Tampa Bay’s power-play has clicked at a decent rate, however, there have been times when their puck movement becomes too predictable and the opposing penalty kill negates their pressure.

The Lightning’s strong penalty kill against the New Jersey Devils quickly evaporated against the Boston Bruins. Tampa Bay was at 83% before squaring off against Boston, and the Bruins quickly reminded us that the Lightning’s Achilles heel was their penalty kill. If it wasn’t for Tampa Bay’s smothering play at 5-on-5 the previous series would’ve been a lot closer. Interestingly, the Lightning are the second best face-off team left in the playoffs (Nashville being the best at 56.9%), which counters their regular season performance (48.2%).

Regardless, this won’t be a walk in the park for Tampa Bay. Ovechkin has been a monster for the Capitals this postseason (what else is new), and the depth that Washington has shouldn’t be underestimated. They might not have the same caliber of players that Boston did, but the team that sticks within their system and doesn’t commit as many mistakes will be the one who advances.

Expect to see the Point line tackle the responsibility of shutting down the Ovechkin line. If Backstrom’s injury continues to linger, then Tampa Bay’s match-up game will have one fewer impact player to worry about. However, Evgeny Kuznetsov is not to be underestimated—period. He’s just as deadly as Backstrom and has a penchant for big goals. It’ll be interesting to see what Jon Cooper does to shut down the Capitals forward corps.

Goaltending

Goaltending Matchup - Vasilevskiy vs. Holtby

Goaltender Shots Against Saves Goals Allowed Sv% GAA
Goaltender Shots Against Saves Goals Allowed Sv% GAA
Andrei Vasilevskiy 301 279 22 0.927 2.2
Braden Holtby 311 288 23 0.926 2.04

This is going to determine who advances; whichever one of these goaltenders falters first. Holtby has been fantastic for the Capitals since taking over for Philipp Grubauer in game two of the first round, and he hasn’t looked back. With Holtby looking like the Holtby everyone expects, this puts the onus on Vasilevskiy.

The young Russian was great against New Jersey, but had some struggles against Boston. During the Boston series, Vasilevskiy posted a 0.902 save percentage (Sv%) in all situations. However, it should be noted that at 5-on-5 Vasilevskiy posted a 0.940 Sv% against Boston. The penalty kill struggles nosedived his overall percentage, but nonetheless, a team’s goalie must be their best penalty killer. Overall, in the postseason Vasilevskiy has a 0.927 Sv% in all situations and a 0.943 Sv% at 5-on-5. Holtby, has a 0.926 Sv% in all situations and a 0.921 Sv% at 5-on-5.

Matchups

As I mentioned earlier, the Point line will be tasked with shutting down the Ovechkin line. If Backstrom is in the Capitals lineup, then that means Kuznetsov will anchor the second line for Washington. I would assume the second line will square off against the Stamkos line, which, in theory, should be a net positive for Tampa Bay, but Kuznetsov is no slouch. The bottom nine of these two rosters has talent and I’m honestly unsure which one I would give the edge to. The homer side of me says Tampa Bay, however, the analytical side of me says they might cancel each other out.

I’m unsure what the Capitals will do in the match-up game. They have Lars Eller as their third center, and he has historically been used in a shut down role (and been largely effective at it too), but I’m unsure if that will be the right course of action for the Capitals to do. I’m not entirely familiar with how Washington plays the match-up game, and Barry Trotz has been known to throw a few curve balls every now and then. This one feels like a wait and see to get a gauge on what both teams will do.

On defense, the Lightning will ride Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and Ryan McDonagh until they cease to function. The ice-time disparity between these three defenders and the other defensemen on the Lightning’s roster is ridiculous. Hedman is averaging 26+ minutes per game, Stralman and McDonagh average 22+, Girardi is averaging 16, Coburn is averaging 14, and Sergachev is at 11. Fortunately, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn have looked fine with a lighter workload, and that bodes well for the Lightning moving forward. It would be nice if the coaching staff would allow Sergachev more ice-time, but I understand why they’re sheltering him.

Washington will boast a defensive corps of John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmirtri Orlov, Brooks Orpik, Christian Djoos, and Michal Kempny. The Capitals have ridden the trio of Carlson, Niskanen, and Orlov hard this postseason with all three averaging 25+ minutes a game. Orpik and Kempny average around 17 minutes and Djoos is receiving the Sergachev treatment in the 11 minute range. Tampa Bay’s forecheck assaulted the lower pairings that Boston put on the ice, so it’ll be interesting to see which defensive pairing they choose to attack against Washington.

Prediction

Lightning in 7. My initial thought was Lightning in 6, but Holtby isn’t Rask, and Washington is playing with house money (not many expected them to make it this far). Holtby is going to steal at least one game, and Washington’s forward talent is going to cause problems all series for Tampa Bay. If the Lightning somehow manage to make this series a short one, then I’m just going to throw my notes out the window and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

I still doubt this goes shorter than 6 games, though. I expect a hungry Capitals team ready to prove that they can go the distance. However, I still think Tampa Bay will come out on top.