This is a matchup we have seen in the playoffs only two times, 2002 and 2011, the Lightning holds the series advantage 6-2. In 2002 they beat Washington in the first round 4-2, in 2011 they beat Washington 4-0 in the second round. The good thing about hockey is as much as those numbers play a factor, they essentially mean nothing. In 2002 no active player is still on either team to this day and in 2011, the only two players who remain on the Lightning roster still to this day are Stamkos and Hedman, I am going to have to guess they barely remember that series.
Who has the edge here though this year? Let’s break down each aspect of the game.
Tampa Bay: The Lightning have a very deep top nine, one of the best in the league and every player on this roster is capable of scoring and chipping in some way. Their leading scorer is Nikita Kucherov with 12 points, next up is Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos with 10. Ondrej Palat(8), JT Miller(7), Alex Killron(6), Yanni Gourde(6), Tyler Johnson(5). They have a list of players who can score every night, as we saw with Boston. When the lines look a little like, Kucherov-Stamkos-Miller, Point-Palat-Johnson and still have Killron, Gourde on the next two it is going to be a handful for the Capitals.
Washington: As we all know, the Capitals run through two guys a lot, Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, their two top scorers and guys that have been their fuel all playoffs. Their leading scorer is Ovechkin with 15 points and Kuzy with 14, despite Backstrom being out one game, game six he also is a point per game player with 13 points in 11 games. Throw in an all-around forward in TJ Oshie(8) and a defensive forward in Lars Eller(7) the Capitals will rely heavily on these guys like Oshie and Eller to chip in a bit more and take some pressure off Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Welcoming back Tom Wilson will give them that edge as well, with the Lightning, have Coburn, Hedman, Callahan as their guys who like to throw the weight around, Wilson will match any Lightning and bring that physical presence each day.
Winner: Lightning on pure depth and versatility. Any line can chip and every line has a ton of speed plus their fourth line has been causing havoc every shift they are out there. A good fourth line makes a championship team.
Tampa Bay: With Norris trophy winner Victor Hedman leading the backend, with the help of Anton Stralman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev and Dan Girardi. The Lightning have a very deep, versatile defense as well. In McDonagh you can get both offense and defense(offensive defenseman), Girardi you know a solid 16+ minutes a game playing a fairly solid defensive game and Stralman playing a very solid 18+ minutes shut down style. With Sergachev and Hedman leading the rush on the backend, they have a ton of tools who can get do it all.
Washington: John Carlson through and through has been the most underrated defenseman this whole season, logging major minutes this postseason, producing 11 points, 3 goals and 8 assists in 12 games behind all defenseman by one point for the defenseman lead in the playoffs. With Matt Niskanen and Dimitry Orlov who have played a very solid shut down game with the Penguins and their top guys and the old veteran-like Brooks Orpik doing the same thing as Girardi in a sense. With two very inexperienced and young defenseman in Christian Djoos and Michale Kempny, the Capitals have seen these two young men, grow exceptionally well this playoff run and not make any MAJOR mistakes. A simple game that has been working well for them.
Winner: Lightning, too much depth and tools on that backend that supplement their offense so well.
Tampa Bay: Andrei Vasalivskiy is up for a Vezina trophy and has been very solid and consistent this year for the Lightning. Someone who has really risen to the ranks of a starting role and has given the Lightning the confidence they need, making the saves he needs to when he needs to. Just in the Boston series, he allowed 12 goals in 5 games and 5 of those goals came in game one. He ranks third among active goalies in save percentage(.927) and third in goals against 2.20. This is a tough one because Vasilevskiy has had his team played very well in front of him, but has still been a part of their success in a big way.
Washington: Braden Holtby once a Vezina winner, but after one of his worst years as a starter, coming into the playoffs the Capitals went with Phillip Grubauer after that failed and the Capitals lost their first two games. They gave the torch back to Holtby who has been lights out for them with an 8-2 record, one coming in overtime in game two. Ranking second in goals against with a 2.04 and fourth in save percentage(.926). Holtby has allowed 23 goals compared to Vasilevskiy’s 22 this postseason and their numbers are very similar.
Winner: Capitals, experience-wise, I think we see Holtby elevate his game and play big on this stage that he has never been to before. They are very similar in numbers as far GAA, SV % and goals allowed but I think Holtby is going to be again the big difference maker for the Capitals and rise to the big stage when they need him most.
Series winner: I see the Lightning taking this series in 7, the home ice will play a major role and their offense is just too much to stop right now. With Point, Palat and Gourde all having great series thus far, along with a solid fourth line and Stamkos and Kucherov being relatively quiet that second round, the Lightning’s top guys will come to play and give them the edge here.