Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team
1. How will Tampa’s penalty kill neutralize the Washington power play? Only three teams had a worse penalty kill rate (76.1 percent) during the regular season than the Lightning. Those struggles disappeared in the first round against the New Jersey Devils (84.2 percent), but the Boston Bruins made mince meat out of the unit in the second round, with Tampa only killing off 58.3 percent of power plays.
The PK needs to figure itself out with the match-up against the Capitals ahead. As you’d expect, Washington’s power play has been strong all season. They were seventh in the regular season (22.5 percent) and boast the best success rate of any of the four remaining teams (30.9 percent). John Carlson netted two goals, but the Penguins managed to keep Ovechkin off the board and hold him to only one shot, mainly by attaching a forward to his hip as he tried to find space in his favorite spot in the face-off circle.
2. Can their success at even strength last? Only the Vegas Golden Knights have been better at keeping goals out of their net at 5-on-5. Through two rounds, just 12 of their 25 goals against have come at even strength. The Capitals, meanwhile, have seen 21 of their 32 goals against occur at 5-on-5. Tampa limited their two opponents to a combined 390 shot attempts at even strength, compared to the 612 that Washington has allowed, via Corsica.
3. Will Jon Cooper be able to spread out the forward minutes? Rest is a weapon, as Guy Boucher likes to say, and the Lightning have used rest to their advantage — both in-between series and in games. Cooper has been able to divvy out minutes to his forward group strategically and not going heavy with any one line. In fact, Tampa is the only team of the final four that doesn’t have a forward who’s played over 200 minutes through two rounds. Their four lines have done their jobs and that’s allowed for fresher bodies and more production. When you’re playing an extra month of hockey, that rest helps through the grind of the playoffs.
1. Will the #Brademption continue? It wasn’t the best of regular seasons for Braden Holtby. His play earned him a spot on the bench for the first two games of the playoffs as Philipp Grubauer got the start against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. But Grubauer failed to take hold of the No. 1 job and head coach Barry Trotz decided to go back to Holtby, who proceeded to help the Capitals win four straight to advance.
Against the Penguins, Holtby’s play did not diminished and he posted a .931 even strength save percentage over six games. Continuing the positivity, his high-danger save percentage is .857 through 11 games, which is the highest of his career in the regular season or playoffs (via Corsica). That’s up from .745 a year ago. Also improved are his stops on low-dangers chances, .982 this year compared to .979 in the 2017 playoffs. Tampa has had success creating high-danger scoring chances through two rounds and was much better at scoring in close against Boston than versus New Jersey at even strength.
2. Can the rookie production keep up? Against the Blue Jackets, it was Chandler Stephenson putting up four points. Against the Penguins, it was Jakub Vrana’s turn. He took advantage of a turn on the top line in Tom Wilson’s absence and succeeded. With a few minutes of power play time, he contributed a goal in their 4-1 victory in Game 2. Stephenson was also one of three Capitals forwards to play more than 10 minutes on the penalty kill in the second round.
With Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky missing games, the kids took on some extra responsibility and contributed. Depth will get you far in the playoffs, and the Capitals benefited from those not named Ovechkin, Kuznetsov or Backstrom, among a few others, to chip in when needed.
3. Was the series win over the Penguins enough? You could see the elation in the faces of the Capitals after Evgeny Kuznetsov’s series-winning overtime goal in Game 6. They had finally slayed the dragon and killed two birds with one stone in eliminating the Penguins and advancing to the conference final. It was almost like their own Stanley Cup victory, which was a theme since Tuesday as talk about the series victory continued. But while many on this team have experienced the disappointments over the last decade, it will be hard to imagine them coming out flat against a better opponent in the Lightning. Ovechkin’s desire to win a Stanley Cup will not allow them to be complacent with just getting this far.