Lightning’s Eastern Conference Final matchup promises offense, highlights
There is just something right about a playoff series between a team that wears mostly blue and a team that wears red. That’s a minor thing, of course, but as the Tampa Bay Lightning get set to take on the Washington Capitals it helps set the tone for what shapes up on paper to be a visually-pleasing Eastern Conference Final.
Both the Lightning and Capitals prefer offense-friendly styles of play led by a number of players capable of producing memorable goals. Both teams play defensive hockey in such a way that it seems unlikely either offense will be truly smothered. Alexander Ovechkin is likely to get his chances, but so too are Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.
Make no mistake: On paper this series very much favors the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Capitals are likely to allow Tampa Bay to play their Plan A style of hockey, and Washington will be more than happy to get into a track meet with the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s skill set suggests this series will put him in a position to succeed, and that combines with the Lightning’s depth advantage to make them a clear favorite here.
How the Capitals get their goals
Offensively, the Capitals are a playmakers’ team. Their ideal style of hockey involves finding any way to get one of their star players—preferably Alexander Ovechkin—in enough open space to make things happen. They play relatively well in transition, and thrive off of those turnovers that turn into breakaway opportunities.
For the Lightning, then, it will be paramount to display passing discipline all over the ice. An errant pass can lead to a quick opportunity for the Capitals, and they have enough shooting firepower that any opportunity is dangerous.
Whereas against New Jersey and Boston it was important to watch the front of the net, against Washington it will be important to limit puck movement when the Capitals have the puck. Washington is at their best when the opponent is chasing the puck, when they can make teams follow their passing until one of their scorers has an open shooting lane.
This could be a skater’s series. Both teams have players with the ability to create a play with fast movement on the ice, meaning defensemen on both teams will need to keep up with players who can run blueliners ragged.
Kucherov and Holtby a matchup to watch
During the 2017-18 regular season, Nikita Kucherov has developed a way of scoring that is unique to him and makes for one of the better highlights available. In on a breakaway, he fakes a shot and lets the puck slide under the goalie to light the lamp. Kucherov managed this move three times. Two of those came at the expense of Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, including once during the All Star Game.
Holtby is coming off the best series of his career to this point, one of the main reasons Washington is here instead of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is a tough goalie to beat and something to watch out for in this series. At the same time, he’s more susceptible to being scored on during breakaways than Tuukka Rask.
This is one area where Tampa Bay might have an advantage. Because of the way Washington likes to play, and because of the way the Lightning like to play, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos will likely get their share of breakaway opportunities against a goaltender that can be beaten that way.
A certain kind of momentum
The thing that might make Washington as scary as any opponent the Lightning could face right now is that they have a case for Team of Destiny Status.
We have seen across every sport instances where teams finally get past that one pesky opponent and it opens the floodgates. In Tampa Bay, the 2002 Buccaneers come to mind. Once they got past the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bucs seemed invincible. Sometimes, a long-suffering team gets on that Team of Destiny run. The Capitals cannot be ruled out in this regard.
Getting past Pittsburgh could be a way of turning the corner, especially for Alex Ovechkin. It cannot be understated that the Capitals have the biggest name attached to this series for a reason. Ovechkin remains one of the best players in hockey thirteen seasons into his career. He was once again the top goal-scorer in hockey this season. He’s the kind of player who can just take over, and who may have to if his Capitals are to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Vasilevskiy’s strengths to be put to the test
Andrei Vasilevskiy is a rare kind of goaltender. He can go post to post to make a save, and he can reach behind his back. He is already one of the best in the game at stopping breakaways and open opportunities, and he owes that to incredible awareness.
Because the Capitals prefer to let their scorers take shots, rather than cause chaos in front of the net, Vasilevskiy will get the kind of shots he generally wants. However, the Washington Capitals are exceptionally skilled at that kind of hockey, so these strong points for the Lightning goaltender will be under the microscope against Ovechkin and company.
At the same time, this underlines the uphill battle the Capitals are fighting on paper. It isn’t that the Lightning are some juggernaut team, but Washington does not set up well to respond to the things the Lightning are best at. They’re likely to look to set up open shots and breakaways against a goalie who is good at sizing up both. Washington could easily find themselves in a speed skating event with a Lightning team that thrives in that style.
Pick: Lightning in 6
The Washington Capitals are the kind of team that looks like they really should, at some point, win the Stanley Cup. It is still difficult to imagine Ovechkin retiring like Dan Marino and Charles Barkley, ringless despite all his best efforts. There is a reason, after all, that hockey awards a trophy for the playoff MVP. Sometimes a team can ride their best player’s best performance all the way to a parade.
Ovechkin, and the Capitals in general, will get their share of scoring chances.
Still, it’s hard to get past just how much this matchup suggests that Tampa Bay will be able to play their preferred style of hockey. The best way to beat Tampa Bay is to do something that throws them off their game, or be particularly skilled at something the Lightning leave themselves open to. If this series becomes about matching strength with strength, the Lightning will eventually overwhelm the Capitals with the same depth they used to drown out the Boston Bruins. If it becomes a series about speed, it’s hard to compete in that department with Brayden Point.
The series favors the Lightning, but it looks to be thrilling playoff hockey, and given the way these teams like to play could wind up an end-to-end series decided by bounces and what-if scenarios. It looks to be playoff hockey at its finest.