The Tampa Bay Lightning once again find themselves in the Eastern Conference Final. This is the third time in the last four seasons and the fourth time since 2011 that they’ve challenged for the conference crown.
The Washington Capitals, on the other hand, are making their first Eastern Conference Final appearance in 20 years.
This would suggest an experience edge for the Lightning, with 18 players on the squad having played in a combined 273 conference final games. Captain Steven Stamkos has played in 15 conference final games, while veteran Chris Kunitz has seen action in 26.
In the playoffs, the Lightning seem to have Washington’s number. They defeated them in six games in the 2003 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals and swept them in the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The Capitals are emerging out of the ashes of what was supposed to be THE season last year. They were considered a team on the repackaging path after challenging once again in the post-season but coming up short. But now it looks like Washington may be every bit THE contender.
This may have to do with lowered (or adjusted) expectations. The Capitals still boast the league’s best scorer in Alex Ovechkin, who has 15 points in a dozen playoff games this season. He had seven points against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round and two goals in three games against the Lightning during the regular season.
Tampa counters with its scorers, including Stamkos. He looks to have found his game, with four points in his last three contests.
And his club is right behind him, charging through every game with a tenacious, up-tempo approach. There’s a reason the Lightning is averaging 3.50 goals per game in the playoffs and a reason they lit up the Bruins for 17 goals in five games.
Brayden Point was stellar against Boston, with seven points in the series. He emerged after a tough Game One and knows how to play shutdown hockey. He, along with linemates Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, will draw the top assignments against Washington.
The Capitals will get forward Tom Wilson back for Game One. He was suspended three games for a check to the head of Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese. There’s no reason to expect Washington won’t slip him right back up on the top line with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Wilson has seven points in nine playoff games.
Look for the Capitals to play with reckless abandon against the Lightning. They lead the playoffs in blocked shots and averaged 17.75 of them per game.
But Tampa won’t roll over in the physical department. They charted 171 hits against the Bruins and seem prepared to engage more with Washington.
If it comes down to goaltending, as it often does, Tampa should give Washington a run for its money. The play of Vezina finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy has been solid. It helps that the Lightning have allowed the second-fewest shots against, which is a fair shade away from the wide open style they promoted in the regular season.
Braden Holtby has held it down for Washington. The 28-year-old is 8-3, with a 2.04 goals against average and a .926 save percentage. He is 9-3-3 against Tampa in his career, with two shutouts.
There are some questions surrounding this series, like whether Nicklas Backstrom will find his way back to the Washington lineup. His presence would shift the pressure from Ovechkin and Co. to field the scoring. He, along with winger Andre Burakovsky, are listed as day-to-day for the Capitals.