Thanks to a 3-0 Washington Capitals win over Tampa Bay on Monday night, the 2018 Eastern Conference Final will be decided in a winner-take-all Game 7 on Wednesday at Amalie Arena. It’s the 16th conference final to go the distance since the NHL’s two sub-leagues were rebranded the East and the West in 1993 and it’s the fourth straight year the Eastern Conference Final has gone the distance. Wednesday's winner will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final starting on Monday night, but before we get there, let’s break down what will be the third Game 7 of the 2018 playoffs.
This Bolts-Caps series has been a good one, and it seems only fitting that it’s going all the way. Washington convincingly won Games 1 and 2 in Tampa Bay by a combined score of 10-4, raising hopes in D.C. and doubts by the Bay. Most of those doubts fell upon goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has bounced back to quell any and all of those misgivings by allowing just nine goals in Games 3-6.
The Lightning, trailing 0-2 in the series, went into the nation’s capital and won both games by 4-2 scorelines before returning home for a 3-2 win. Facing elimination for the first time in this postseason, the Capitals held home ice and then some, getting 24 saves from Braden Holtby in a 3-0 win in Game 6. That was the first time this series the losing team scored something other than two goals.
These two teams finished in the top 10 in scoring in the regular season (the Lightning were first), so it comes as little surprise that both teams have been terrific on the power play. In fact, nearly half of Tampa Bay’s offense (six of 15 goals) has come on the man advantage—when the Lightning have been snuffed on the power play, the rest of the offense has struggled. Top-liners Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have combined for five goals in this series, but they’ve all come with a Capitals player in the box.
Washington’s abysmal playoff history has been well chronicled, but let’s document it some more, shall we? The Capitals are 4-11 in Game 7s in franchise history—that’s the worst record in the league among teams that have played at least 10 winner-take-all contests. The Lightning, meanwhile, are 5-2 in Game 7s in their history, the best record among teams that have played in at least five all-or-nothing contests.
Much of the blame for recent Capitals' collapses (of which there have been a few) has been laid at the skates of captain Alex Ovechkin. But even if Washington goes down Wednesday, the Great Eight should be absolved of all criticism, because this is the best postseason hockey he’s ever played. He has 11 goals and 21 points in 18 games so far and sure, he technically was better in his second postseason run in 2009 with 11 goals and 21 points in just 14 games, but the numbers don’t encompass just how effective he’s been. He’s taking fewer penalties than normal, still being physical without being controversial as he’s been in the past (linemate Tom Wilson has that area covered) and he’s led by example.
It helps that Evgeny Kuznetsov has emerged as a top-line center for him to play with: he has a series-high nine points and set a franchise mark with a playoff-high 23, allowing the once-again healthy Nicklas Backstrom to prosper on the second line with T.J. Oshie, a pairing that linked up for a pair of goals in Game 6.
The rest of the Caps’ cast of characters has changed considerably. Alex Chiasson and Andre Burakovsky have cycled in and out of the lineup, but neither is terribly effective when on the ice: they’ve combined for one point (a Chiasson assist) and four shots on goal (three by Burakovsky) in nine combined games. Lightning coach Jon Cooper hasn’t had to make as many changes to his contingent, but it bears mentioning that all but two of his players (Ryan Callahan and Alex Killorn) have a plus/minus of zero or lower. All but five Capitals are in the positives through six games.
The home teams lost each of the first four games of this series, but the Lightning have said frequently that the reason teams work so hard for home-ice advantage in the regular season is to get the chance to play a Game 7 at home. That didn’t work out so well for Nashville in Round 2, though it did work for Boston in Round 1.
If the latter part of this series is any indication, this Game 7 is gonna be good. The opening draw is slated for 8 p.m. ET. The winner goes to the Cup Final. The loser goes home early. Get ready.