The Eastern Conference Final begins at 8 p.m. Friday, May 11 with the Washington Capitals visiting the Tampa Bay Lightning. It'll be Washington's first conference final trip in 20 years, while Tampa finds itself here for the third time in four seasons. Here's everything you need to know before the puck drops on Game 1.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
The Lightning have had an easy path to the Conference Final. They started with a romp against New Jersey, where they won each game by two or more goals. After a stunning Game 1 loss at home to Boston to start off the second round, Tampa cleaned things up to win four straight and take the series.
The Capitals have had a much rougher road. They started down 0-2 to the Blue Jackets, before ripping off four straight wins—including two in overtime—to advance. Against perennial dream-killer Pittsburgh, the Caps lost the first game. Then Washington won four of the next five—including Game 6 in overtime—to reach the Conference Final for the first time in 20 years.
The Lightning are filled with stars. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov both had MVP-type seasons. Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn—standouts from the last deep run by the Bolts—have been excellent.
What makes the Lightning so dangerous, though, is their unparalelled depth. Start with J.T. Miller. Arguably a throw-in with the Ryan McDonagh trade at the deadline, Miller has been one the team's best forwards. Playing on the first line, Miller finished the regular season with 18 points in 19 games. In 10 playoff games, he has seven points. In his second season, Brayden Point was a 30-goal scorer and has 10 points in the playoffs. Keep going down the list: Yanni Gourde, Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli. The Bolts can score from any of their four lines, and have two unbelievable game-breakers to start it off.
The Capitals' offense is good, but it is by no means the juggernaut it's been in the past. Alex Ovechkin was terrific in the regular season (49 goals) and has been equally as good in the playoffs. Evgeny Kuznetsov had his finest year as a pro and Nicklas Backstrom has been his usual great self.
There is a bit of a drop off, though. Lars Eller, T.J. Oshie, and Tom Wilson are productive players, but they are not game-breakers. Brett Connolly and Jakub Vrana are solid third-liners, but not stars. The Caps are a bit top-heavy in a way that the Lightning aren't.
Of course, that heaviness is manageable when that player is Ovechkin. It's the best season he's had in years, and getting the second round monkey off his back might free him up a bit. That said, if the Lightning can neutralize the top-line, the options for backup behind that aren't as strong as they once were.
The Lightning have, ostensibly, three No. 1 defenseman. Victor Hedman is all-world, and has been averaging a hefty 26:08 through two rounds. Both Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh are so capable of anchoring a unit that they don't even have to give the Bolts the best second pair in the league. (McDonagh has done so in the past, including on a team that made it to the Cup Final.)
Like with most teams, there is a bit of a drop-off afterward. Dan Girardi is a playoff veteran, although not as suited for the type of tough minutes he played with the Rangers. Braydon Corburn is fine, and while Mikhail Sergachev represents elite offensive ability from the blueline, he's playing sheltered minutes this postseason.
The Capitals are led by John Carlson, who is having a career year. The 28-year-old established career-highs in goals (15), assists (53), points (68) and TOI (24:47). He's joined by Matt Niskanen, who's playing four minutes more than in the regular season. Dmitry Orlov has also been steady.
After that, there's the veteran Brooks Orpik, and deadline acquisition Michal Kempny, who are both fine. Christian Djoos doesn't play too much. It's a good unit up front; the depth behind it is worrisome.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, coming off a dominant regular season, has been even better in the playoffs. He's lowered his goals-against average and increased his save percentage. He's had a clunker—Game 1 against Boston—but has otherwise been solid.
That Braden Holtby wasn't the Game 1 starter of the first round was shocking, but not to anyone who saw his play in the latter stages of the season. But after Phillipp Grubaer flopped, Holtby was re-inserted and has played quite well, never allowing more than three goals.
If the Caps get this Holtby, then they're in fine shape. He has the experience and game-stealing ability necessary for a deep run. If they get late-season Holtby, they're in trouble.
Washington wins if...
Someone other than Alex Ovechkin or Evgeny Kuznetsov can carry the team. Tampa will do everything it can to stop the top line. If T.J. Oshie—who's been good—or, better yet, someone like Lars Eller, can score five goals in a seven game series, the Caps will enjoy serious secondary scoring, freeing up Ovechkin to do his thing.
Tampa Bay wins if...
Andrei Vasilevskiy continues his strong play. He hasn't really been tested yet—just two games facing 35 or more shots, and only four with 30 or more. His Game 1 clunker against Boston was worrisome, but the Lightning went on to dominate the rest of the series, and he didn't really have to do too much.
The Caps are underdogs, and with good reason. They simply can't match the depth of the Lightning. Unless Andrei Vasilevskiy flops in net, the Lightning should have a clear path to the Cup Final. The Caps are good enough to steal a game or two, but this one looks like it's Tampa's.
Tampa in 6.