20

Years since last time Capitals reached Stanley Cup Finals

Who will battle for the Cup?

Posted by Eric Fisher On May 13

The Lightning, making their third appearance in the conference finals in the past four years, have far more conference finals experience than the other three remaining teams. Whether that translates into a Stanley Cup for the Lightning remains to be seen.

The Capitals will certainly have something to say about who plays for the Cup. The Capitals, had to fight their way through difficult challenges from the Blue Jackets and Penguins during the first two rounds. What’s unknown is whether the tough road will catch up with the Capitals..

In the Western Conference, the Jets, who finished just behind the Predators in the battle to finish with the the most points in the NHL survived a seven-game series with the Predators. Can the defensive-minded. Golden Knights slow down the Jets?

Let’s take a look at the conference finals.

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

CAPITALS vs. LIGHTNING

How Capitals got here: They defeated the Blue Jackets in 6 games, and then eliminated the Penguins in 6 games.

How Lightning got here: They defeated the Devils in 5 games, and then eliminated the Bruins in 5 games.

Capitals: The Capitals are in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time during Alex Ovechkin’s amazing 13-year career. Ovechkin, who led the NHL in scoring with 49 goals, is leading the Capitals during the playoffs with 15 points (8 goals, 7 assists). Evgeny Kuznetsov (7 goals, 7 assists) centers Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, who is returning from suspension, on the top line. The problem for the Capitals is scoring depth. That situation could be exacerbated by a hand injury to Nicklas Backstrom, who normally centers the second line, with T.J. Oshie and Andre Burakovsky on the wings. Burakovsky enters the series battling an “upper body” injury. It’s almost a certainty that former Penguins Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov will the defensive pairing matched up against the Lightning’s top line. Defenseman John Carlson has 3 goals and 7 assists on the Capitals’ lethal power play. Braden Holtby, who regained the starting goalie role from Philipp Grubauer early in the first round, was terrific during the second-round series with the Penguins.

Lightning: The Lightning are loaded. Nikita Kucherov (39 goals, 61 assists) and Steven Stamkos (27 goals, 59 assists) lead the way on offense, but the Lightning have plenty of depth. When Chris Kunitz and Ryan Callahan are on the fourth line, it speaks volumes about the quality of the top three lines. The second line of Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat can score, but it might also be assigned the task of containing the Capitals’ top line. Kucherov slowed down against the Bruins after leading the Lightning during the first round with five goals and five assists in five games. He still leads the Lightning in points, with Stamkos (left) and Point next with 10 apiece. Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman (17 goals, 46 assists, plus-32) anchors a defensive corps that also includes former Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh. Former Flyer Braydon Coburn is part of the third pairing. Andrei Vasilevskiy (2.62 goals-against, .920 save percentage) is solid in goal.

Analysis: The Capitals seem like a team of destiny. But the Lightning, in the conference finals for the third time in four seasons, have more scoring depth and a better defense. The Capitals’ power play is clicking at 30.6 percent, so the Lightning will need to avoid penalties and excel at killing penalties. A key for the Lightning will be Hedman, who has been exceptional at killing penalties during the postseason. The sentimental pick is for Ovechkin to reach his first Stanley Cup Finals. The Lightning, however, were impressive in winning the final four games of their series with the Bruins. Lightning in 6.

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

GOLDEN KNIGHTS vs. JETS

How Golden Knights got here: They swept the Kings, and then eliminated the Sharks in 6 games.

How Jets got here: They defeated the Wild in 5 games, and then eliminated the Predators in 7 games.

Golden Knights: Doubt the Golden Knights at your own risk. The Golden Knights were surprise winners of the Pacific Division and then surprised some people – including me – by sweeping the Kings during the first round. One reason they finished first in the division and have advanced through the first two rounds is goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who posted a career-best .927 save percentage. Despite a no-name defense, the Golden Knights and Fleury only allowed three goals during the first-round sweep of the Kings. Some of those defensemen, such as Brayden McNabb and Nate Schmidt are starting make names for themselves. Another reason is center William Karlsson, who emerged from obscurity with 43 goals and 35 assists, but wingers Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault lead the Golden Knights in playoff scoring (11 points). Pierre-Edouard Bellemare plays a fourth-line role similar to what he did with the Flyers.

Jets: Patrik Laine, 19, led the Jets with 44 goals, including 20 on the power play, during the regular season, but center Mark Scheifele leads the Jets – and the entire NHL – with 13 playoff goals. Schiefele plays on a line with Blake Wheeler also piled up power–play points, with his 40 ranking second in the NHL. Wheeler, who scored 23 goals and tied Claude Giroux for the NHL-lead in assists with 68 during the regular season, has three goals and 12 assists during the playoffs. Kyle Connor joins Schiefele and Wheeler on the top line. Two points behind Schiefele (16 points) and one behind Wheeler is Patrick Stastny, who has six goals and eight assists. Stastny joins Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers on the second line. Huge defenseman Dustin Byfuglien has been terrific, producing 13 points (4 goals, 9 assists). Connor Hellebuyck has been exceptional throughout the playoffs.

Analysis: This is a matchup between two of the NHL’s biggest surprises. Golden Knights are a terrific story. Could they win a Stanley Cup in their first NHL season? To get that opportunity, they have to get past the high-flying Jets. Many were surprised that the Jets had the second-most points in the NHL this season, but the Jets possess a lot of speed and get scoring from their top line. Byfuglien has seemingly put together the skills and physical attributes to become a top defenseman. For the Golden Knights, Fleury has been terrific all season. But the Knight’s Cinderella story ends in the conference finals. Jets in 6

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