Lightning in 7
After years of frustration, the Washington Capitals have finally beaten the Penguins in the playoffs and reached the Eastern Conference Finals. For the Capitals, it is their third appearance in the Conference Finals, having been swept in 1990 by the Bruins and beating the Sabres in 1998. For Alexander Ovechkin it his first time past the second round. As Washington celebrated Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime game-winner against the Penguins, Ovechkin gave a visible sigh of relief.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are used to playing in the Eastern Conference Finals. It is their third trip to the NHL’s semifinal round in four years. Last year the Lightning beset by injuries missed the playoffs, but in 2015, Tampa lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Blackhawks, while they lost a seven-game battle with the Penguins in the 2016 Conference Finals.
Health could be a big factor in this season, as Washington beat the Penguins without Andre Burakovsy and Nicklas Backstrom. Both players have been active at practice for the Capitals, and the team appears to be optimistic that they will be able to go once the puck drops in Tampa on Friday Night. The Capitals were also without Tom Wilson who was serving a three-game suspension. Losing three top forward opened things up for the Capitals lesser-known players, who excelled, including Jakub Vrana, whose big Game 5 set up the Capitals with a chance to close out the series against the Penguins in six games.
The Lightning have waltzed through the first two rounds, needing five games to dispatch the Devils and Bruins, while the Capitals have needed six games in each of their series against the Blue Jackets and Penguins. Tampa who at the end of the season appeared to be coasting have hit the afterburners in the playoffs and have looked like the best team overall in the playoffs. Tampa has a pair of big offensive weapons in Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. Kucherov was one of three players to finish the regular season with 100 points. In the playoffs, he has been the big spark for Tampa, averaging more than a point game in the playoffs. The Lightning also have a significant edge on defense, with Victor Hedman the favorite to win the Norris Trophy, with Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy a finalist for the Vezina.
On paper, it appears the Lightning have the complete team, with a better second line, a better defense, and better goaltending, as Washington netminder Braden Holtby has struggled at times. However, one player can turn things around and make this series much closer and that is Alex Ovechkin. The player who has been much maligned for their postseason failures of the past. Ovechkin again led the regular season in goals with 49 and has been the Capitals leading scorer in the postseason with 15 points and eight goals, including the key assist that sprung Kuznetsov in his game-winner against the Penguins. With that sigh of relief, Ovechkin could play with less pressure and more freedom and take this series over. If that happens to look out it really could be the Capitals year. Though more than likely, Tampa’s talent edge and depth will wear down Washington and win a seven-game series.
Golden Knights in 6
There is no doubt that the biggest surprise in the NHL in 2018 is the Vegas Golden Knights, who won the Pacific Division with a record of 51-24-7 as an expansion team. The Winnipeg Jets are a big surprise in their own right as they finished second in the Central Division and had the second-best record overall in the NHL at 52-20-10. The Jets would beat the Predators who won the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s regular season champions in seven games just to reach the Western Conference Finals.
The secret to the Golden Knights success is Marc-Andre Fleury, the first player ever chosen by Vegas in last season’s expansion draft. Fleury who won three Stanley Cup as a member of the Penguins came to Vegas with a chip on his shoulder and had a big season, with a 2.24 GAA and .927 save percentage. In the playoffs, Marc-Andre Fleury has been even better, with a 1.53 GAA and a .951 save percentage, while recording four shutouts in the first two rounds. While Fleury served as a backup in the last two seasons with Pittsburgh, but he was key to the Penguins run in 2009.
The Jets might be nearly as big of a surprise as the Golden Knights. In their first six seasons in Winnipeg, after a decade-long struggle at the Atlanta Thrashers, the Jets made the playoffs just once and were swept. In Atlanta, they made the playoffs just once in 11 seasons and also were swept. After not having won a playoff game in nearly 20 seasons, the Jets franchise downed the Wild in five games and upset the Predators in seven games. Goaltending has also been key to the Jets success, as Connor Hellebuyck had a breakout season, more than doubling his career with total, as he posted a record of 44-11-9, with a 2.36 GAA and a .924 save percentage. A Vezina Finalist, Hellebuyck has been solid in the postseason with a 2.19 GAA, and a .927 save percentage while recording a pair of shutouts in the first two rounds.
Winnipeg may possess the best player on the ice, as Patrick Laine is a flat-out star on the rise, with 70 points in his second NHL season and a team-best 44 goals, while Blake Wheeler had 90 points. Mark Scheifele has been the Jets offensive leader in the playoffs, with a team beat 11 goals, including two in their Game 7 win in Nashville. William Karlsson meanwhile has lit the lamp often on the Vegas strip, with 78 points in the regular season, with 43 goals. In his previous two seasons with the Blue Jackets had just 18 career goals, demonstrating once again just how unique this season has been for Vegas. Jonathan Marchessault also had a strong season with 75 points. Karlsson, Marchessault and Alex Tuch each have four goals to lead Vegas in the playoffs.
The Golden Knights have not been lighting the lamp much in the postseason, as they have truly ridden on the back of the hot goalie as they won a pair of 1-0 games in their sweep of the Kings. The Knights found the scoring touch in beating the Sharks in six, while Marc-Andre Fleury remained red hot. Riding the hot goalie will be the difference as the Golden Knights miracle run continues in a six games series.