Tampa Bay has utterly dominated this season—leading the NHL in wins, goals and power play—but these four teams could take down Goliath.
THE CASE FOR THE CAPITALS
The biggest obstacle to the Lightning's Cup chances this spring will be the team that stymied them last spring. And one could argue that Washington is even better equipped to handle the task now. Aside from Alex Ovechkin's NHL-high 51 goals, six other players have reached 20 this season, including emerging winger Jakub Vrana and bulldozer Tom Wilson. And over the past six seasons no goalie has a better playoff save percentage than Braden Holtby (.928).
We saw a teaser for a potential Eastern Conference finals rematch on March 20, when the Caps set a franchise record with 58 shots against Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy but lost in overtime 5–4. Between its breakneck pace, showcase of skills and overall pugnacity (36 combined PIMs), the game carried the high-stakes feel of a late-May meeting. It also served as a reminder: The Lightning have run away with the regular season, but the reigning champs won't go down without a fight. — Alex Prewitt
THE CASE FOR THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Since acquiring five-time 20-goal scorer Mark Stone at the trade deadline, the Golden Knights have unlocked their offense, going 11-5-2 and upping their goals per game from 2.94 to 3.63. The 26-year-old winger has 11 points, but his presence has been a boon to Vegas's secondary scorers. His line—with center Paul Stastny and left wing Max Pacioretty—has controlled 63% of shot attempts at even strength.
The only way to stand up to Tampa Bay is to match their multitiered scoring attack. The Stastny line would be a top line on most playoff teams, and its third line, anchored by 20-goal scorers Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch, is potent. And that's not to mention the Knights' three leading scorers, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson, a trio that was electric in last year's Cinderella playoffs.
Vegas punches above its weight on defense and is solid on the penalty kill. (Stone also helps here, leading NHL forwards in takeaways.) Plus, Marc-André Fleury, after an uneven start, has been solid in goal since New Year's.
But to beat Tampa Bay, you must at least keep up with its high-octane offense, led by Art Ross winner Nikita Kucherov. Stone gives Vegas another tool to do just that. — Jeremy Fuchs
THE CASE FOR THE BRUINS
Boston weathered an injury storm this season—center Patrice Bergeron, winger David Pastrnak and defensemen Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara have missed a combined 68 games—and somehow didn't miss a step. Instead, the Bruins went on a 19-game point streak, from Jan. 29 to March 9, and have the league's second-best record since turning the calendar. Renewed depth has keyed their run: Jake DeBrusk, playing alongside a healthy David Krejci, has notched his first 20-goal season, and 23-year-old winger Danton Heinen found success filling in for Pastrnak on the top line.
Boston will go into the playoffs as an improved defensive team, with the third-fewest goals allowed per game in the NHL. That's in large part due to a sturdy goaltending situation, with experience-laden Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak minding net.
In 2018 the Lightning prevented the Bruins' bottom six from registering a single point and forechecked them into oblivion in a sweep. Boston's improved secondary scoring—Chris Wagner, Noel Acciari and Sean Kuraly make up one of the better checking lines in the NHL—will prevent a repeat, as will Bergeron and Marchand, who have had career years. The Bruins, the second-best team in the league, match the Lightning top to bottom as well as anybody. — Dan Falkenheim
THE CASE FOR THE PREDATORS
Although the Sharks were touted as having one of the most fearsome blue lines before the season, it’s the Predators who have successfully lived up to their defensive hype this year and a killer defense is going to be the key to stopping Tampa Bay’s offensive firepower. Behind Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, Nashville’s defense easily makes up for what it might lack in offensive prowess, and its penalty kill would challenge the Lightning’s lethal power play. And the Predators’ defensive weapons extend to their third line, which has officially been reunited with the return of Austin Watson. If Nashville wants to take away Tampa Bay’s scoring chances, its shutdown line of Watson, Colton Sissons and Nick Bonino will be the ones to throw their bodies in front of shots and make noise in the neutral zone.
Nashville needs to shift into a higher gear once the playoffs start, but this Predators team is very reminiscent of the one that made it to the Stanley Cup Final back in 2017 with a lot of the same players leading the way. The Preds are once again hot at just the right time and this could be the year they finally grind it out to complete the mission. — Kristen Nelson