Ryan Dadoun

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Conference Finals Preview

Friday, May 11, 2018



Alex Ovechkin is finally in the Eastern Conference Final and his Washington Capitals powered past the rival Pittsburgh Penguins to get here.  The question now is if that’s as far as they’ll go.


This will certainly be a tough series for them.  While Washington did win the tough Metropolitan Division, the Tampa Bay Lightning looked like the stronger team for much of the first round.  Their offense is the envy of the league, even in contrast to the Capitals.  Alex Ovechkin did score 49 goals and the Capitals had two other players (Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom) record over 70 points, but Nikita Kucherov reached the century mark, Steven Stamkos recorded 86 points, and the Lightning had three other players (Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, and Victor Hedman) with over 60 points.


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The Lightning had an incredible first line and along with remarkable offensive depth while by contrast, the Capitals have star power, but not quite the same level of depth as Tampa Bay.  That can be key in the playoffs.  After all, Boston did a fairly good job of neutralizing Nikita Kucherov in the second round, but Tampa Bay still won that series in five games while scoring 17 goals.  So while the Capitals did just overcome the offensive might of the Penguins, they might be in store for an even bigger challenge now.


Tampa Bay also has a pretty strong defense, especially after the Lightning acquired Ryan McDonagh from the Rangers to complement the existing core of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman.  The Capitals will be largely leaning on John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Matt Niskanen with Carlson in particular being of note, especially given that he’s excelled offensively in the postseason with three goals and 11 points in 12 contests.  None of the Tampa Bay blueliners have been nearly that hot offensively so far in the playoffs.


If the Capitals are to win this series, it will likely need to be with Braden Holtby making some major contributions.  Holtby struggled in the second half of the regular season, to the point where he began the playoffs as the backup goalie.  That didn’t last long though and Holtby ended up being a major driver of the Capitals’ run so far with his 2.04 GAA and .926 save percentage in 11 games.  Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has come up big too though and while Tampa Bay arguably has the better offense, there’s no question that the Capitals are dangerous and Vasilevskiy will have his work cut out for him.


One other important factor to consider is the health of the Washington Capitals.  Nicklas Backstrom missed Game 6 of the second round and it remains to be seen if he’ll be available when this series begins.  Washington has also been forced to move forward without Andre Burakovsky, though he was recently upgraded from week-to-week to day-to-day, so perhaps he’ll end up seeing some play in the conference finals.


This is a series with no lack of big name stars and it will be interesting to see which of them step up to be the heroes here.  Ultimately, I’m predicting the Tampa Bay Lightning will take this one in six games.




Keep in mind that all projected lineups should be taken with a grain of salt as teams can and will tweak their lines on a game-by-game or even shift-by-shift basis.


J.T. Miller-Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov

Ondrej Palat-Brayden Point-Tyler Johnson

Alex Killorn-Anthony Cirelli-Yanni Gourde

Chris Kunitz-Cedric Paquette-Ryan Callahan


Victor Hedman-Dan Girardi

Anton Stralman-Ryan McDonagh

Braydon Coburn-Mikhail Sergachev


Andrei Vasilevskiy

Peter Budaj




Brayden Point found the back of the net in each of his last two games and he has three goals and seven points in his last five contests. That brings him up to four goals and 10 points in 10 postseason games.




Nikita Kucherov was limited to a goal and an assist in the Lightning's five-game series against Boston.  He's still been great overall in the postseason, but the Lightning should be hoping for more production out of him against Washington than they got versus Boston.




Adam Erne (lower body) hasn't appeared yet in the 2018 playoffs, but he has been practicing with the Lightning lately.  He's the only player whose availability is in question with Tampa Bay.


This is the third time the Lightning have met the Washington Capitals in the playoffs. Tampa Bay beat Washington in six games in the first round of the 2003 playoffs and then swept the Capitals in 2011 during the second round.


Though the Lightning missed the playoffs last season, this is the third time in the span of four years that Tampa Bay has advanced to at least the Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning haven't won the Stanley Cup over that span though.




The Capitals lines are particularly hard to predict given the uncertainty surronding Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky.  These lines are made in the scenario that neither play, but of course if they do then the Capitals' lines will look meaningfully different.


Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson

Jakub Vrana-Lars Eller-T.J. Oshie

Chandler Stephenson-Travis Boyd-Brett Connolly

Devante Smith-Pelly-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson


Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen

Michal Kempny-John Carlson

Brooks Orpik-Christian Djoos


Braden Holtby

Philipp Grubauer




Evgeny Kuznetsov is going into this series on a three-game point streak.  He has two goals and five points in that span, bringing him up to seven goals and 14 points in 12 contests.




John Carlson was on fire in the first round with nine points in six games, but the second round wasn't nearly as productive for him from an offensive perspective.  He had two goals and no assists in six contests versus Pittsburgh.




As previously mentioned Andre Burakovsky (upper body) and Nicklas Backstrom (hand) are both questionable going into Game 1.  Based on Friday's line rushes, it would seem that there's a good chance that Burakovsky will end up being available, but Backstrom missed the practice so he probably won't be in the lineup. We'll have to wait to see if those predictions prove to be accurate though.


The last time the Washington Capitals got to the Eastern Conference Final was back in 1998. The franchise is looking for its first Stanley Cup championship.


Washington has the second best power-play in the 2018 playoffs at 30.9%, behind only the eliminated Boston Bruins. The Lightning aren't too far behind though at 26.3%. Both teams will want to play a disciplined game given how effective the other is capable of taking advantage of penalties.




Going into the season, the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise had never won a playoff game and Vegas…well, obviously they didn’t exist prior to this campaign.  And yet here they are, facing off in the Western Conference Final.


These two teams might be Cinderella stories in that regard, but make no mistake: They deserve to have gotten this far.


Throughout the 2017-18 campaign, Winnipeg and Vegas were two of the league’s most dominate teams, in part thanks to their offensive might.  The Jets finished second in the NHL in goals for while Vegas ranked fifth.  Winnipeg was led by the underrated Blake Wheeler, who had 23 goals and 91 points in 81 contests as well as Patrik Laine, who is just 20-years-old but already being compared to Alex Ovechkin.  It’s hard to get away from that kind of talk though after Laine scored 80 goals over his first two campaigns.


Meanwhile, Vegas was headlined by players they assembled through the expansion draft and related trades. William Karlsson, who was a bottom-six forward with Columbus that had never recorded more than 25 points in a single season, exploded with Vegas, scoring 43 goals and 78 points in 82 contests.  Jonathan Marchessault was right behind him, jumping from 51 points in his last season with Florida to 27 goals and 75 points in 77 games.


A big part of both team’s strength though wasn’t so much their offensive star power as their forward depth.  Winnipeg had five different players with at least 20 goals and 50 points this season.  Vegas had five players with at least 20 goals as well and five players with at least 50 points.  Contrast that with a middle-of-the-road offense like Los Angeles, which had three 20-plus goal scorers or New Jersey, which had two players at least reach the 50-point milestone.


The Jets and Golden Knights weren’t just offensive powerhouses though, they also had strong goaltending.  Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck is a Vezina Trophy finalist after posting a 44-11-9 record, 2.36 GAA, and .924 save percentage in 67 contests.  Marc-Andre Fleury might have been a finalist as well if he didn’t miss time due to injury, but when he was healthy he had a 29-13-4 record, 2.24 GAA, and .927 save percentage in 46 starts.


Those netminders have also played key roles in the playoffs.  Four of Vegas’ eight postseason wins thus far have come from Fleury’s shutouts.  Meanwhile, Hellebuyck has an 8-4 record, 2.24 GAA, and .927 save percentage in the postseason.


This is an interesting series to gauge because there’s so much talent here, but not a lot of history to backup either team.  In fact, the experience edge might go to the Golden Knights because it does feature several veterans with a wealth of postseason experience like Fleury, who has three Stanley Cup championships and 125 playoff games played on his resume, and Neal, who has appeared in 90 playoff games.


The Jets do have some players with a good amount of postseason experience though, like midseason acquisition Paul Stastny, who has appeared in 67 career playoff games and has been particularly effective in the 2018 postseason with six goals and 14 points.  He’s more of the exception than the rule for Winnipeg though.


This series should be a fun one and I’m not predicting that it will go to seven games, I’m hoping it will because I want to see these two teams compete as much as possible.  I am giving Vegas the edge in this series based on how much they’ve impressed me over the first two rounds, but this one is a tossup.




Reilly Smith-William Karlsson-Jonathan Marchessault

David Perron-Erik Haula-James Neal

Oscar Lindberg-Cody Eakin-Alex Tuch

Ryan Carpenter-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-William Carrier


Nate Schmidt-Brayden McNabb

Shea Theodore-Deryk Engelland

Luca Sbisa-Colin Miller


Marc-Andre Fleury

Malcolm Subban




Jonathan Marchessault has three goals and six points in his last four contests.  That brings him up to four goals and 11 points in 10 playoff contests.




It's a stretch, especially given that Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off a 28-save shutout, but it is worth noting that Fleury wasn't the shutdown goaltender against San Jose that he was versus Los Angeles.  He surrendered a combined 14 goals in four starts from Game 2-5, so there is some degree of vulnerability there that we didn't see in the first round.




Of all the teams that made it this far, Vegas has the most injured players, but that's only if you count the obvious suspects. Mikhail Grabovski (concussion), David Clarkson (back), and Clayton Stoner (lower body) were never expected to play and unsurprisingly, there is no recent news regarding them. William Carrier (undisclosed) missed Game 6 of the second round and then Wednesday's practice, making him the only true question mark on the team.


This is of course the first time that Vegas and Winnipeg have faced each other in the playoffs. The Golden Knights did win their regular season series against the Jets 2-1 though.


Vegas' 85% success rate when it comes to killing penalties in the playoffs is second only to the eliminated Los Angeles Kings. It’s an area where they're far ahead of the Jets as Winnipeg's penalty kill is at 74.2%.




Kyle Connor-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler

Nikolaj Ehlers-Paul Stastny-Patrik Laine

Andrew Copp-Adam Lowry-Joel Armia

Mathieu Perreault-Bryan Little-Brandon Tanev


Josh Morrissey-Jacob Trouba

Toby Enstrom-Dustin Byfuglien

Ben Chiarot-Tyler Myers


Connor Hellebuyck

Steve Mason




Paul Stastny has only been held off the scoresheet once in his last eight games. He's up to six goals and 14 points in 12 playoff contests.




Nikolaj Ehlers does have six assists in 11 playoff games, but after scoring 29 goals in the regular season, he hasn't found the back of the net yet in the playoffs. He's taken 16 shots on goal thus far.




Dmitry Kulikov (back) hasn't played yet in the 2018 postseason, but he has been practicing with the Jets, so perhaps he'll be an option in the Eastern Conference Final. Beyond that, the Jets are healthy.


As mentioned previously, the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise hadn't won a playoff game before this year. If you want to look at what the city of Winnipeg saw though with the original Winnipeg Jets (now the Arizona Coyotes), then this is still the furthest either Jets have ever gone. The original Winnipeg Jets last won a postseason series in 1987.


The Jets have a 7-1 record when scoring first in the playoffs, which gives them a league-high .875 winning percentage.  By contrast, their winning percentage is .250 (1-3) when the opposition scores first, so naturally hot starts will be important for the Jets in this series.

Ryan Dadoun is an Associate Editor for Hockey on Rotoworld. Feel free to follow him on Twitter or check out his blog.
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