Stanley Cup Playoffs: Eastern Conference final preview
Lightning pose massive roadblock for Capitals' title hopes
His gaze to the heavens on Monday night in Pittsburgh said it all. After so many post-season flops, oh, what a relief it was for Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals to finally earn a trip to the East final in this his 13th NHL season.
"Thank God this happened," were his first words after Evgeny Kuznetsov scored in overtime on Monday evening to eliminate the back-to-back Stanley Cup-champion Penguins.
"I've never been in this position before and I'm looking forward [to it]."
The Great 8 is not a foreigner to mid-May hockey. But usually, it's a trip with his fellow Russian countrymen to the world championship, something his early Stanley Cup playoff exits have afforded him to do a whopping 10 times in his first 12 NHL seasons.
It may have been an 11th last spring had a lower-body ailment not prohibited him from playing at the world championship in Germany and France.
Three championships drive elite-level professionals these days: the Stanley Cup, Olympic gold and a world championship.
The 32-year-old Ovechkin has won three world crowns, but hasn't come close in the other two pursuits, finishing fourth, sixth and fifth in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympic Games.
The Lightning pose a massive roadblock to Ovechkin's Stanley Cup chase when the East final begins in Tampa Bay on Friday (8 p.m. ET).
Tampa Bay has four balanced lines and an extremely stingy top-four on the blue line as well as a Vezina Trophy candidate in goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Tampa Bay vs. Washington
- Washington: 49-26-7 (105 points)
- Tampa Bay: 54-23-5 (113 points)
Season series: Lightning won 2-1-0 (Capitals 1-1-1)
- Oct. 9 @ Tampa Bay — Lightning 4-3 (OT)
- Nov. 24 @ Washington — Capitals 3-1
- Feb. 20 @ Washington — Lightning 4-2
East final storylines
1. Barry Trotz escapes his own demons
If you think Ovechkin endured many trials and tribulations to advance past the second round, check out Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. The last time the Capitals have advanced this far was in 1998, when they defeated the Buffalo Sabres in six games and were swept in the Stanley Cup final by the Detroit Red Wings.
Back then, Trotz was a few months away from beginning his rookie NHL season as a head coach with the Nashville Predators.
It took him 19 seasons to become fifth on the all-time regular-season wins list behind Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Joel Quenneville and Ken Hitchcock. Each is a Stanley Cup winner. But until now, Trotz had never been past the second round in the playoffs.
That's why the likable head coach said he was going to "have a cold one or two and just enjoy it," after his club eliminated Pittsburgh earlier this week.
This was Trotz's best coaching job. From his back-to-back Presidents' Trophy-winning team in 2015-16 and 2016-17, he lost Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt in the off-season. Trotz's contract is up and a decision on whether he'll be back has been tabled until after the playoffs.
2. Lightning strikes for the third time in four seasons
After missing the playoffs a year ago, the Lightning have returned to the East final for the third time in four years. In the last 20 years, only seven other teams have advanced to the conference final three times in a four-year span.
The others won at least one Stanley Cup in their four-year period.
The other teams include: Chicago (2013, 2014, 2015), N.Y. Rangers (2013, 2014, 2015), Los Angeles (2012, 2013, 2014), Detroit (2007, 2008, 2009), New Jersey (2000, 2001, 2003), Colorado (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002) and Dallas (1998, 1999, 2000).
3. Brayden makes his point in first Stanley Cup playoffs
Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper likes to boast his Lightning are a four-line club. The line of 22-year-old centre Brayden Point between Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson has been as important as any line.
The trio not only has the same amount of goals (11) as the Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Miller unit, the former group also is asked to go up against the other team's top line. With the exception of the opening game in the second-round series against the Boston Bruins, Point's line did an exceptional job shutting down Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.
4. Holtby rebounds
It's difficult to believe, but 28-year-old goalie Braden Holtby wasn't the Capitals No. 1 goalie entering this playoff run. That honour went to Philip Grubauer. He, however, stumbled in the first two games, while Holtby has come in to win eight of his 10 starts and sports a .926 save percentage.
It wasn't too long ago Holtby was considered one of the best in the game. He won the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy, which earned him a spot on the Canadian roster for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
5. Yzerman vs. MacLellan
They're hardly heated rivals. In fact, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and his Washington counterpart, Brian MacLellan, were teammates with the 1991-92 Detroit Red Wings.
Yzerman won three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings and 2002 Olympic gold with Canada, he has proven to be an elite GM in building the Lightning into a perennial contender.
MacLellan, on the other hand, also won a Stanley Cup with the 1988-89 Calgary Flames despite being undrafted out of Bowling Green University. Now in his 16th season with the Capitals, he had to work his way up from a pro scout to GM and now gets to go up against his old teammate.
Prediction: Lightning in six. Tampa simply has too much depth for the Capitals to deal with.