It took a whole 27ish hours for the Tampa Bay Lightning to figure out who they would be facing in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Washington Capitals have finally broken through the wall. They’ve advanced. They beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. Let me say I’m impressed. It’s been a long time coming for the Capitals to reach the Eastern Conference Final, the first time they’ve done so since 1998, when they lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Steve Yzerman-captained Detroit Red Wings.
Now that we know who the Lightning are going to face... some thoughts!
We know he’s a beast. We know what he can do. He’s a scoring machine and all through these playoffs he’s looked like a man on a mission. He’s looked like a man that wants to play for a Stanley Cup. He has eight goals and seven points in 12 games in this playoffs. He’s only been held off the scoresheet in three games; twice by the Columbus Blue Jackets and once by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
I can tell you one thing for sure though. Brayden Point and his linemates will be tasked with taking him on in game one. Point has proven his mettle against Taylor Hall and Patrice Bergeron. Now he gets to try his hand at Ovechkin. Will he be up to the task? Can he keep Ovie off the scoresheet? It’s going to be a challenge and I think Point is up to the task. He’s got two trusty wingers on either side of him in Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. They’ve been right by his side and a crucial part in shutting down the aforementioned stars.
One scary bit about Ovechkin is his lethal one-timer on the power play. With the way the Lightning’s penalty kill has gone, it’s going to be tough to stop him there and the best way to do that is going to be to stay out of the box. Even with that said, Ovechkin has scored just three of his eight goals on the power play. He’s been equally up to the task at even strength.
Ovechkin’s main linemates this year, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson, have been productive as well. Wilson is a tough customer and was suspended for three games during their series against the Penguins. With game six, he served the last game of his suspension so he’ll be back for game one against Tampa. Kuznetsov has put up seven goals and 14 points to put him right up there with Ovechkin in the playoffs after putting up 27 goals and 83 points in the regular season. Wilson has less skill, but has fit in on the line with 14 goals and 35 points in the regular season followed up with two goals and five assists in the playoffs.
A big question for the Capitals going into this series is the health of Niklas Backstrom. He is one of the best playmakers of his generation. He missed game six against the Penguins with a reported upper body injury to his left hand. If there’s something broken in his hand, he could be out for a while. But obviously with it being the playoffs, the Capitals are going to be tight lipped about his health. Backstrom returning in this series would be a big boost to...
Unlike the Devils and Bruins, the Capitals have spread out some of their wealth. With Kuznetsov and Ovechkin anchoring the first line, they can play Backstrom (when healthy) and T.J. Oshie on the second line. They’ve gotten some good complementary scoring from Wilson, Lars Eller, and Jakub Vrana. They are a pretty balanced scoring team with 14 different players having scored a goal and all of their regular players picking up at least a point. Sounds a bit like the Lightning’s roster through two rounds.
Fortunately, the Lightning have eight forwards that fit the mold of top six players. With the Point line going against Ovechkin, expect the first and third lines, centered by Steven Stamkos and Anthony Cirelli respectively, to be tasked with tying up Washington’s second and third line. While the Stamkos line has been a bit inconsistent, they have a lot of firepower to bring to bear. It would be my guess that Stamkos and company would go up against the third line of the Capitals whenever possible.
[And don’t forget that a certain guy named Nikita Kucherov is going to want to show off to his countrymate and idol. - Acha]
The Cirelli line is short on experience outside of Alex Killorn. However, Cirelli and Yanni Gourde have plenty of playoff experience in the OHL and AHL respectively. They’ve shown that the NHL playoffs are not above their heads and that they’ve come to play.
The Capitals have been led on the blueline by John Carlson. He’s in a contract year and he’s played like he’s out to earn a big contract come July 1st (or before if the Capitals manage to re-sign him). With three goals and eight assists, he’s third in defensemen scoring in the playoffs. All while averaging 27:02, the fourth highest in the playoffs. His TOI is a touch inflated though by three overtime games to start the playoffs that saw him on the ice for a combined 92:16. One wart in Carlson’s numbers in the playoffs is that 10 of his 11 points came on the power play. He has more to give at even strength and that will be something for the Lightning to watch out for with him on the ice.
The next two big names for the Capitals are Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov. Like Carlson, Niskanen is a horse and logs big minutes on the back end. He’s also got some offense in his game with 7 goals and 29 assists in the regular season. Orlov is in a similar spot in statistics. He’s just behind the other two in TOI and is leading the Capitals defensemen in even strength points with six.
After Orlov, there’s a big drop off. The Capitals have a clear top three, much like the Lightning. The bottom end of their blueline is filled out by Brooks Orpik, Michal Kempny, and Christian Djoos. Jakub Jerabek has subbed in for Djoos in two games. Those four have six points between them in the playoffs.
Washington’s Second Power Play Unit
One striking stat, is that all of their power play success has come from the top unit. Carlson, Ovechkin, Oshie, Ovechkin, and Kuznetsov own nearly all of their power play points. Jakub Vrana and Lars Eller have contributed one point a piece. If the Lightning can figure out how to shut down Ovechkin’s one timer and Oshie’s wrist shots from the slot, then they don’t seem to have a lot to fear from the Capitals’ second power play unit.
The Lightning also have a benefit going for them in that they’ve only played ten games, while both of the Captials’ series have gone 6 games for a total of 12. That may not seem like a lot, but when you put it on top of the regular season workload, those extra minutes that the Capitals have had to play weigh on them. Add in the fact that they’ve gone into overtime five times, including a 2OT game, which has given them a whole extra games worth of playing time. On the other side, the Lightning only went to overtime once and that ended just minutes into the first overtime period.
The top of the Capitals defensive corp have all topped 300 minutes played in the playoffs. Niskanen has 322, Carlson 320, and Orlov 306. For comparison, the Lightning’s top three have logged 261 (Hedman), 227 (Stralman), and 224 (McDonagh) minutes on the ice. Assuming around 22-25 minutes TOI per game for their top guys, Niskanen, Carlson and Orlov have played around four extra games over Stralman and McDonagh. The difference between Hedman and the Capitals blue line is smaller, but that is because he normally plays around 26 minutes a night normally while Stralman and McDonagh have been in the 22-23 minute range.
Up front for the Lightning, Point as 189, Kucherov 190, Miller 176, and Stamkos 173 minutes. The Capitals top four forwards have 269 (Kuznetsov), 264 (Ovechkin), 255 (Oshie), and 242 (Backstrom). If you figure that top forwards normally average around 20 minutes of TOI, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, and Oshie have put in four extra games worth of ice time.
I said above that the Capitals have essentially played three extra games; two extra full games and an extra one worth of overtime play. But yet their top forwards and defensemen have played four games worth of extra ice time. It makes sense though. When you’re in overtime, in the playoffs, you’re going to ride your top players. The fourth line and the bottom pair are going to see a lot of the bench. You need a goal, you need to win, so you put the players out there that will help you do so.
That extra wear and tear on the Capitals line-up could make the difference, especially as this series goes on. The Lightning need to take advantage of the rest and health they’ve had so far in the playoffs. I’d like to see them go at the Capitals hard physically early in the series and wear them down even further. Make it hard for them to play, and make it hard for them to keep playing at the top of their games.
After initially going with Phillip Grubauer in net, the Capitals switched back to their main man in Braden Holtby. Since coming in, Holtby has been solid in net. He’s posted a .926 SV% just behind Andrei Vasilevskiy’s .927 SV%. One difference though is that Vasilevskiy’s numbers were not as great in the second round with a .909 SV%. The Lightning did well to limit the number of chances that the Bruins got after the first game of the series which cratered his numbers for the series. If you take out the first game, Vasilevskiy had a .936 SV%.
It goes without saying that Vasilevskiy will have his hardest test of the playoffs here against the Capitals. He put on a show in the first round against the New Jersey Devils. He had a bad first game against the Bruins after a week long break and then bounced back admirably.
Both goalies are excellent and they are going to make it challenging for either team to score.
But let us also not forget: