The quest for the Stanley Cup continues as the conference finals of the NHL playoffs begins tonight with the Tampa Bay Lightning hosting the Washington Capitals. Here’s a preview (and predictions) of the two series:
Tampa Bay Lightning (54-23-5) vs. Washington Capitals (49-26-7)
Season series: Tampa Bay 2-1-0; Washington 1-1-1
First Round: Tampa Bay defeated New Jersey in five games; Washington defeated Columbus in six games
Second Round: Tampa Bay defeated Boston in five games; Washington defeated Pittsburgh in six games
Lightning: The Lightning are the favourites heading into this series.
Tampa Bay had eight more points than Washington during the regular season and were the top team in the Eastern Conference. They led the NHL in goals with 290, 17 more than the second-best team. They are continuing their scoring ways by compiling 3.5 goals for per game in the playoffs.
Tampa may be a small team, but they are skilled and shoot the puck as often as they can. They are spearheaded by Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point on offence, all producing at least a point per game.
What has really been outstanding has been their exceptional defence core with the likes of Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, newly acquired Ryan McDonagh and the emergence of rookie Mikhail Sergachev.
Second-line centre Brayden Point was easily Tampa’s best player against the Bruins, as he, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat shut down Boston’s top line and will most likely be given the task of shutting down Alex Ovechkin and Washington’s first line.
The Lightning are the personification of a new NHL that benefits speed and skill over size.
Capitals: For the first time in 20 years, Washington will be in the Eastern Conference final.
The Capitals are currently tied for the playoff lead in goals per game with 3.6 – 1/10th higher than the Lightning – so you can rest assured this series will be a high-scoring one.
First-line centre Niklas Backstrom has 13 points in 11 games and is listed as day-to-day with a right hand injury. Backstrom will need to get healthy to give the Capitals the push they need.
At the moment, franchise player Ovechkin is pulling his weight in the playoffs, tallying 15 points (8-7-15) in 12 games.
Goaltender Braden Holtby has been a brick wall since relieving Philipp Grubauer in Game 2 of the first round against Columbus. Holtby is 8-3 with a 2.04 GAA and a .926 save percentage.
— NHL (@NHL) May 8, 2018
Prediction: Tampa Bay over Washington in six games.
Without Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky, I find it hard seeing the Capitals coming out on top unless Ovechkin and Kuznetsov carry them through the series along with great goaltending. Tampa Bay’s unbelievable depth is hard to overlook.
Winnipeg Jets (52-20-10) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (51-24-7)
Season Series: Winnipeg 1-1-1 ; Vegas 2-1-0
First round: Winnipeg defeated Minnesota in five games; Vegas defeated L.A. in four games
Second Round: Winnipeg defeated Nashville in seven games; Vegas defeated San Jose in six games
Jets: After a thrilling win in Nashville in Game 7 to move on to the Western Conference final, the Jets showed something they have been lacking the past year: poise.
Centre Paul Stastny was the only player on the roster who has won a Game 7 in the playoffs and he has done it twice. He had two goals and an assist to lead the Jets past the Predators.
The Jets have the firepower to go line-to-line against Vegas, and they have the upper hand when it comes to size.
The Jets are leading the playoffs, along with Washington, with 3.6 goals per game. The question is whether they can score against the best goalie in the playoffs in Marc-Andre Fleury.
Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck is a part of the reason the Jets have made it this far, as he is posting a 2.24 GAA with a .927 save percentage in the playoffs through 12 games.
If Winnipeg can get their top two lines rolling and ignite the spark in Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, then this series may be over quicker than you’d think.
Golden Knights: The dream is still alive. Vegas is here for two reasons: their speed and Fleury.
Fleury is hands-down the best goaltender remaining in the playoffs. Through 10 games, he has four shutouts, a 1.53 GAA and a .951 save percentage.
The Golden Knights play a style that is hard to keep up with. They have a relentless offence filled with speed that, as we have seen, most teams can’t match.
Almost half of their starting lineup are having career years and their first line is finding ways to score against some of the NHL’s best. Their first line of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault all are averaging at least a point per game.
Vegas needs to stick to their game and let Fleury do his thing in order to advance to the finals.
Prediction: Vegas over Winnipeg in seven games. It’s hard to keep betting against Vegas, and at this point, what can’t they do?
First round preditions: 6-2. Second round: 3-1. Overall: 9-3.