Story highlights: A quick look at the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals match-up between the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s uncharted territory in the Alex Ovechkin era for the Caps.
By Bill Sands
After finally slaying the dragon and knocking the Pittsburgh Penguins out of the playoffs, the Washington Capitals are off to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 20 years. Waiting for them are the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Atlantic Division champions. Tampa Bay eliminated Boston and New Jersey, with both series going five games.
The third-round series between the Caps and Lightning kicks off Friday night, with puck drop at 8:00 PM. Let’s take a look at the keys to the series and what the Caps will need to do in order to progress to the Stanley Cup Final.
Caps’ Special Teams
Tampa Bay is a talented and deep team with few holes, but one glaring weakness is the team’s penalty kill. The Lightning had the 4th-worst penalty kill in the league during the regular season and took the fifth-most penalties. Washington’s power play has shown the ability to strike at critical times, and the unit will need to stay hot and take advantage of any opportunities that Tampa Bay offers.
For the first time since 2015, the Caps will not play Game 1 on home ice. This may actually work to their advantage, as previous early losses have shaken the team’s confidence and created doubt. Playing the first two games in Tampa takes some of the edge off and makes it easier to relax, and if the Caps can steal a game, especially the first one, they can return to DC feeling quite good about themselves.
Healthy Top Six
Perhaps the most impressive fact about the Caps’ win in Game 6 over Pittsburgh was the fact that they did so without half of their top six. Andre Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom both missed time with injuries, while Tom Wilson missed three games for a hit to the head that was deemed illegal by the league. Wilson is guaranteed to be back for Game 1 of the Conference Finals, but the timetable for Backstrom and Burakovsky is much less certain. The Caps will need all of their depth to move on, so the sooner they can get healthy, the better.
Capitals: Team Defense
Despite looking flimsy on paper, Washington’s defense turned in an A+ performance against the Pens. In the third period and overtime of Game 6, the team gave up just seven shots and was efficient in shutting down stars Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel. John Carlson has been his usual outstanding self, while deadline acquisition Michal Kempny has been stellar, if under the radar. The true strength, however, comes from the team’s overall defensive play. Much like the Penguins, Tampa features a number of speedy and skilled players, and the Caps will need to keep clogging lanes and blocking shots to shut them down.
We’re in uncharted territory with this generation of Caps players, but the team is halfway there and playing its best hockey of the year at the right time. It should be a great series, so stay tuned for more updates along the way.