2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 3 Preview: Capitals vs. Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86), of Russia, scores a goal against Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby (70) during the third period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, in Washington. The Lightning won 4-2. (Nick Wass/AP)

Coming into 2017-18, it’s fair to say both of these teams had Stanley Cup hopes, although their outlooks were very different.

The Lightning were coming back fully healthy and optimistic that last year’s post-season miss was a blip. A popular pick to reach and/or win the Cup in pre-season predictions, the hockey world largely agreed that the amount of talent in Tampa was too much to ignore them as a huge bounce back candidate. With young goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy rising to the challenge and quickly becoming a Vezina Trophy finalist, the Lightning didn’t really have a weakness and were one of the biggest buyers at the trade deadline.

Washington, on the other hand, was still viewed as a contender, though maybe less so than they had been in a few years. Last season was the Capitals’ all-in season and when they fell in the second round again — the sixth time in the Alex Ovechkin era — it led to a lot of off-season losses from the roster. Even still, because of some high-end pieces up front (Ovechkin) on the blue line (John Carlson) and in net (Braden Holtby) Washington wasn’t going to be written off, but they were supposed to take a step back. And after many years of falling short in the playoffs, they seemingly had caught the disease the plagued the San Jose Sharks for years. No one who picked the Caps for the Cup pre-season could have felt too good about doing it — even after they won another regular season division title.

And yet here we are and this is the Caps team, the most unlikely of them all, that slayed the Sidney Crosby/Pittsburgh Penguins dragon to get the team to the conference final for the first time since they got to the Cup final in 1998. Injuries are starting to take a toll, though, and the Lightning have clearly been the better team from start to finish, so the Caps will move on to face another, bigger test. Is this where the run stops, or is destiny calling Ovechkin and Co.?

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5-on-5 via Corsica.Hockey
Washington: 47.99 CF% (24th), 52.48 GF% (12th), .925 SP% (13th), 9.14 SH% (2nd), 101.61 PDO (4th)

Tampa Bay: 51.62 CF% (7th), 57.18 GF% (1st), .929 SP% (5th), 9.35 SH% (1st), 102.28 PDO (1st)

Determined by percentiles created for a variety of statistics and weighed equally to give each team a grade out of 10 for offence and defence (seven for 5-on-5 and three for special teams). These numbers are then averaged to come up with a power number to measure a team’s all-around play.

Tampa Bay 9.10 (2nd) 5.20 (13th) 7.15 (2nd)
Washington 5.62 (13th) 3.56 (23rd) 4.59 (19th)

Washington: 22.5 PP% (7th), 80.3 PK% (15th), 256 GF (9th), 238 GA (16th)

Tampa Bay: 23.9 PP% (3rd), 76.1 PK% (28th), 290 GF (1st), 234 GA (13th)

Washington: 1-1-1

Tampa Bay: 2-1-0

Playoff Strengths for Washington: The seventh-best regular season power play has continued to be a plus for the Capitals, who convert with the extra man at a better rate than any team left standing. But the Capitals have found a way to score in all situations. After receiving the most power play opportunities of any team in Round 1, Washington had the second-fewest PP chances in Round 2 and made up for it with 5-on-5 production. The Caps have been one of the best even strength producers to this point, led by Alex Ovechkin who is quietly sixth in playoff scoring.

The best strength for the Capitals to this point was also their biggest worry coming into the playoffs. In goal, Philipp Grubauer started the first two games against Columbus since Braden Holtby had been struggling, but it didn’t take long for coach Barry Trotz to turn back to his No. 1. Holtby was especially good in Round 2, holding a Penguins offence that was red-hot against Philadelphia to one of the lowest goal totals. Now, Holtby has a .924 save percentage in the post-season and a 2.16 GAA that’s second to only Marc-Andre Fleury among remaining netminders.

Playoff Strengths for Tampa Bay: The highest-scoring team all season long has continued to dominate offensively in the playoffs, averaging 3.50 goals per game and scoring 17 in five games against a stingy Boston defence. After their top line led the way in Round 1, it was Brayden Point who led Tampa Bay with seven points against the Bruins and Victor Hedman added six after he was held pointless versus New Jersey. The Lightning are a small team that has a mix of early draft picks and players completely passed over altogether — but they can skate and shoot and bring a heck of a lot of offensive creativity that befuddled one of the best shutdown teams in the league.

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Capitals’ X-Factor: Nicklas Backstrom missed Game 6 against Pittsburgh so his health will be in question even if/when he returns to the lineup. The Capitals already don’t have the kind of scoring depth they’ve had in years past, so this puts more pressure on Alex Ovechkin to pull his team over the hump. He’s got them to Round 3, somewhere the Caps haven’t been since 1998, so it’s obvious that he can’t let up.

As far as an X-Factor goes, we need to pick out an unheralded player who needs to produce, and that responsibility falls squarely on 22-year-old Jakub Vrana. The rookie averaged just 12:20 of ice in the regular season, which has actually fallen to under 10 minutes in the playoffs. This guy needs to play more. When he was moved up in the lineup, Vrana had a three-point night in Game 5 versus Pittsburgh. The Capitals will need to muster all the offence it can against all of Tampa’s weapons and Vrana, the 13th overall pick in 2014, has earned the opportunity. The Caps scored a lot against Pittsburgh, thanks mostly to a struggling Matt Murray — it doesn’t look like they’ll have that luxury against Tampa Bay.

Lightning’s X-Factor: The most surprising thing about this post-season edition of the Lightning is how strong they’ve been on defence. Coming into the playoffs they were a team that had allowed among the most shots in the league over the second half and were middle-of-the-road in goals against. But through two rounds, the Lightning have allowed the second-fewest shots, and no team allowed fewer shots than Tampa did in Round 2 alone.

The Capitals have stepped up their defence as well and were at their best when they played shutdown and suffocated the ice against Pittsburgh’s stars. Tampa could actually match that and if they do, taking Washington’s offence out of the series, it could leave their stellar offence unchallenged.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin (8-7-14), Evgeny Kuznetsov (7-7-13), Nicklas Backstrom (3-10-13)

Tampa Bay: Nikita Kucherov (6-6-12), Brayden Point (4-6-10), Steven Stamkos (3-7-10)


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