For the first time in 10 playoff runs in the Alex Ovechkin era, the Washington Capitals have finally made it out of the second round. To make things even sweeter, they slayed the dragon by eliminating Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins, a constant thorn in their side come playoff time.
Now comes the time when we see if the Capitals are ready for the next challenge — and it’s a big one. The Tampa Bay Lightning have arguably been the most dominant team in the playoffs so far, needing just 10 games to reach the conference finals, tied with the Vegas Golden Knights for the fewest, but they had to go through a powerhouse Boston Bruins team to do it.
In that Bruins series, the Lightning made the regular season’s best even-strength team look outclassed and slow whenever the Bergeron line wasn’t on the ice. Tampa managed to end the series quickly despite not getting much scoring from Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, a sign of the amazing depth the team has on its roster.
Breaking things down by typical metrics like scoring chances and shot attempts, the Lightning look like the much better team heading into this series. However, the Capitals appeared to be the weaker team in each of their two previous series on paper, so I want to look at how these teams match up against each other stylistically.
One area to look at for these two teams is how differently they compete for loose pucks based on the zone.
Though it’s not immediately intuitive that both teams are below 50 per cent in each zone, remember that there are three results in any puck battle. Each team could gain possession of the puck, or neither team can. Because of puck battles where there is no clear winner, everyone is below 50 per cent, so keep that in mind whenever we use the statistic.
The Lightning lead the league in contested puck battle wins in the offensive zone in these playoffs — a huge part of their terrorizing forecheck — and they’re the second-best team at winning puck battles in the defensive zone after the Golden Knights. The Capitals rank sixth and 11th respectively but lead the league in neutral zone puck battle wins, where Tampa Bay is 13th.
So, the Capitals are extremely aggressive on loose pucks in the neutral zone, but less so in the defensive zone, whereas the Lightning are all about getting pucks in the offensive and defensive zones, and a bit laxer in the neutral zone.
The Lightning also lead the league in recovering pucks after taking a shot with 28.4 per 60 minutes at 5-vs-5, which allows them to get a lot of second-chance opportunities and extends their zone time on tired defences.
More happens in the offensive and defensive zones than the neutral zone overall, so that seems like an advantage to the Lightning, and the scales tip further that way when you consider the Lightning also create 14.8 takeaways in the neutral zone per 60 minutes to 9.37 for the Capitals, so while Washington may win more of their puck battles, the Lightning are pretty relentless on teams attempting to get through the neutral zone with the puck.
If there’s an area the Capitals have a true statistical advantage, you would think it would be in goal, where Braden Holtby was brilliant in the second round against the Penguins, but don’t sleep on Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Holtby has been brilliant, there’s no doubt about it, but both of these goaltenders have been excellent through the first two rounds, and there’s not much separation at all. Vasilevskiy has been a little bit better at 5-vs-5 from the high danger areas, whereas Holtby has been right there with him and a bit stronger on special teams, though he’s been more susceptible to perimeter shots outside of 5-vs-5 hockey.
The one area that looks like it might be an advantage for the Capitals at even strength is off the rush, where Washington produces far more offence than Tampa Bay does, but the Lightning have been one of the better teams in the playoffs at defending rush chances.
Special teams could tip things Washington’s way, but both teams have been hot on the power play and only OK while shorthanded, so the advantage might be limited.
Like the first two series for the Capitals, the path to a series win looks to be uphill — the Lightning are just so strong in so many ways. It’s tough to bet against Tampa Bay.