The Highlights

  • The Capitals finally got the monkey off their back by beating the Penguins and reaching their first Eastern Conference finals of the Ovechkin Era.
  • Things won’t be easy for Washington, as they will take on the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning in a seven-game series for a berth in the Stanley Cup.
  • Our experts seem to think that Tampa will skate past Ovi and the gang, but things could go Washington’s way if goaltender Braden Holtby steals a game or two.

The beers have been flowing at bars all along the beltway over the past few days, as a D.C sports team will play in a conference final for the first time since 1998. It has been 20 years between appearances — both by the Capitals. The Peter Bondra-led Caps won the Eastern Conference that year but ultimately came up short in their bid for their first Stanley Cup, which still eludes them to this day. If the Caps can get it done this year, D.C will have its first championship since the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1991.

Despite only being in existence since 1992 — 18 years after the start of the Caps franchise — the Lightning did win a Stanley Cup in 2004. However, this current core does not have a ring, although a bunch of them have been to the Stanley Cup Finals. (Tampa Bay lost to Chicago in 2015.)

 

As someone who lost a Bolts 30-1 future that year and someone who has a 15-1 Bolts future this year, I surprisingly would have preferred them to face the Pens in this round. This veteran Caps bunch scares me now that they got two monkeys off their back with one win in Game 6 at Pittsburgh. Game 1 will be critical, as Tampa not only needs to maintain the home-ice advantage it worked for all year, but also force that doubt back into Washington.

The Lightning won the season series 2-1 by an aggregate score of 9-8 — taking the only meeting in Tampa and splitting in D.C. While Andrei Vasilevskiy manned the net for all three matchups, Braden Holtby only played in their final regular season clash, a 4-2 Tampa win in Washington. — Stuckey

The Caps had the seventh-best power play during the regular season at 22.5%. That unit has climbed to another level during the playoffs, as they’ve scored 13 goals on 42 power-play opportunities for a conversion percentage of 31.0% — second best this postseason.

That news won’t comfort any Tampa fans, as the Lightning ranked 28th in the NHL on the penalty kill in the regular season at 76.1%. While they have scored two short-handed goals in these playoffs, they have still struggled shutting down opponents when a man down. Their 74.2% postseason kill percentage ranks 11th among all playoff teams. The Lightning must stay out of the box or they will be on the golf course after this series. — Stuckey


Betting Market

As of this writing, Tampa Bay is listed as a -190 favorite to win the series, with Washington coming back at +165. The Lightning are -180 favorites for Game 1, with the Caps priced at +160.

Tampa’s Big Edge

There’s no contest at 5-on-5, where the Lightning are the better team by a considerable margin. Most casual fans know that Tampa Bay’s offense — led by Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov — is a force, but its defense has been nearly flawless in the postseason so far.

The Bolts have absolutely suffocated their opponents through the first two rounds. Sure it’s a small sample, and their first-round opponent, New Jersey, wasn’t a great team. But Tampa’s shot-suppression numbers pop off the page, especially when you consider that its second-round opponent, the Boston Bruins, were one of the best teams in the NHL in terms of controlling shot share this season.

A big reason for Tampa’s success against the Bruins was the play of two-way center Brayden Point. The dude is turning into a Patrice Bergeron-type player, which is a luxury that few teams have.

Tampa’s ability to stymie the Bruins doesn’t bode well for the Capitals. Given the Bolts’ depth on defense and the Caps’ lack of depth, this is a fat checkmark next to Tampa Bay.

Washington, meanwhile, has been pretty impressive, but in a different way. The Capitals’ peripheral numbers were not great during the regular season, but they got by on their talent. Since the playoffs started, however, the Caps have turned things up a notch and deserved the series victory over the Penguins.

Still, the Lightning are a notch above the Penguins and have already brushed aside one of the best teams in the league, so this is a very steep hill to climb for Ovechkin and company. — Michael Leboff

Personnel

Washington has finally shed some of its demons of previous years by advancing to the conference finals for the first time in Alexander Ovechkin’s career. Ovi, who has wrongly been blamed for the Caps’ postseason struggles in the past, was once again sensational for Washington in the first two rounds.

I said going into the playoffs that one of the biggest keys for the Capitals was going to be getting some help from guys like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky. Luckily for Washington, Kuznetsov and Vrana have stepped up, and the latter’s addition to Ovechkin’s line has helped Ovi take his game to a higher level.

Burakovsky, however, got injured early in the Columbus series and has not played in about a month. He has practiced with the team the last two days, though, with Thursday marking his first full day of practice. It appears as if he will return to the lineup sooner rather than later, which should be a nice boost for the Capitals.

On the other hand, one of Washington’s most important players, Nicklas Backstrom, has not practiced with the team since going down in Game 5 against Pittsburgh. He spent some of Thursday on the ice passing the puck around away from the team’s regular session. This is a good indicator that he will miss at least Game 1.

With Backstrom out, I think it’s a great spot to bet Tampa Bay in the beginning of the series. Washington has limited depth at center, which will force  Kuznetsov to step up and play massive minutes in Backstrom’s absence. — Sean Newsham

Danger Zone

Through the lens of high-danger scoring chances (HDSC), no player in this series has done more on a per-game basis in this year’s playoffs than Alex Ovechkin (1.5 per game). On the Tampa Bay side, Brayden Point is not far behind at 1.4 HDSC per game, but in terms of generating these chances, Washington has largely outpaced Tampa Bay.

Goaltenders

If you need more proof that goaltending is witchcraft, look no further than Braden Holtby. The Capitals’ No. 1 goalie was largely mediocre this season while his backup, Philipp Grubauer, was lights out. That led to Barry Trotz’s decision to start the German deputy in Washington’s first two games of Round 1. After dropping those two games, the Caps reinstalled Holtby, and he’s been terrific.

If this version of Holtby shows up against the Lightning, the Capitals have the edge in net. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been good in the playoffs, but Tampa has made life incredibly easy on him thus far —  his expected save percentage is 94.02 at 5-on-5 in the playoffs.

We should expect Washington to be badly outplayed at 5-on-5, so Holtby will need to continue to run hot for the Caps to have a chance at stealing this puppy. — Michael Leboff

Did You Know?

The Capitals are (+165) underdogs to advance to their second Stanley Cup in franchise history (1997-98). With Alexander Ovechkin, Washington is 2-2 in series where the Capitals are listed as underdogs. The last time Washington was this large of a series underdog was in 2012 against the Bruins (+180).

Both the Lightning and Capitals have big home advantages heading into this series. This season, including the playoffs, Tampa Bay and Washington are two of the four most profitable teams at home against conference opponents who are over .500. — Evan Abrams

The Game 1 total opened at 6. Since the 2006 playoffs, the under is 59-40-12 (60%) in games with totals of 6 or higher. This trend is most profitable late in a series:

Game 1-4: Under 34-35-9 (49%)
Game 5-7: Under 25-5-3 (83%). — John Ewing

Picks:
Stuckey: Tampa Bay in 7
Leboff: Tampa Bay in 5
Newsham: Tampa Bay in 6
Holka: Tampa Bay in 6


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