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Capitals vs. Lightning Preview: Players to watch

Capitals vs. Lightning Preview: Players to watch

You know all about Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals.

You know how good Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov from the Tampa Bay Lightning are.

But a series is won and lost not just by the stars, but by the supporting cast as well.

It is likely that the 2018 NHL Eastern Conference Finals between the Lighting and Capitals will be decided by the supporting cast.

Here are the five players you should be watching in the Eastern Conference Finals:

Capitals vs. Lightning Series Preview: 5 Players to Watch

1. Michal Kempny: If the Capitals have a weakness on defense, the Lightning will find it and exploit it. Tampa did that the first time these two teams met this season on Oct. 9. Washington jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but could not hang on, due in large part to Tampa's ability to take full advantage of a defense featuring unexperienced defenseman Aaron Ness and Taylor Chorney as its third pair.

The Capitals addressed their blue line at the trade deadline with the acquisition of Kempny who has slid into a top-four role alongside John Carlson. His addition has bolstered a defense that looked like a clear weakness for Washington. But now both he and the defense are going to be put to the test by the high-powered offense of the Lightning.

2. Chris Kunitz: Don’t forget about this guy. Sure, he’s a fourth-line forward and he has yet to record a single point this postseason, but when the lights are brightest and the team really needs him, that’s when Kunitz is at his best.

Last year with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he did not even play in the first round and had only two points in his first 13 playoff games. But in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Ottawa Senators, Kunitz put up a three-point night and scored twice, including the double-overtime winner.

In the six games of the Stanley Cup Final, Kunitz also recorded six assists.

He is someone who knows how to perform in the biggest moments.

3. Jakub Vrana: Regardless of what line he is on, Vrana is going to have to produce this round. He proved to be a factor against the Penguins with two goals and two assists.

He was the hero of Game 5 as he stepped onto the first line and assisted on the game-tying goal before scoring the game-winner. Tampa has the edge in scoring depth, but Vrana is Washington’s best offensive threat that is not established in the top six. He needs to utilize his speed and put points on the board.

4. Brayden Pont: In three games against Washington this season, Point recorded three goals and one assist. This is his very first NHL postseason, but that hasn’t fazed the 22-year-old center one bit.

In 10 games, he is producing at a point-per-game with four goals and six assists. He is good on the boards, opportunistic and deceptively fast which allows him to get in behind defenses and take advantage of open ice. He is a star in the making and could potentially have a very big series.

5. Lars Eller: With the health of Nicklas Backstrom a question mark, Eller will play on the second line until he is ready to return. One of the most underrated aspects of Backstrom’s game is how good he is on defense.

Slowing down Tampa’s offense is not just a matter of the defensemen playing well, the forwards need to be able to chip in as well. If Backstrom misses any time at all, Eller will have to fill in and make sure the second line is able to both produce offensively and play well in the defensive zone.

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

It doesn't take an expert to tell you players like Alex Ovechkin or Marc-Andre Fleury will play a big role in the Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights will need their best players to be at their best to take home the Cup. But who will be the unexpected heroes? Who are the players no one is talking about who will have a big hand in their team's success or defeat in this series?

Here are five players you should be watching in the Stanley Cup:

1. Devante Smith-Pelly: Smith-Pelly had seven goals in 79 games in the regular season. Now he has four goals in just 19 playoff games.

Smith-Pelly has been one of those unlikely playoff heroes for the Caps this postseason with very timely performances such as scoring the series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Columbus Blue and scoring the goal that put the game away in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The physical play has really stood out as well for him, which fits well on the fourth line role he has settled back into now that the team is healthy again. Barry Trotz tried moving him to the top line in the absence of Tom Wilson and the results weren't great. He is best suited for the role he currently has and that will allow him to thrive.

2. James Neal: Neal came up just short of the Stanley Cup last season as a member of the Nashville Predators. He totaled nine points in 22 games during that run, a number he has already matched in just 15 games this postseason.

There are very few players on either team that boast the kind of postseason experience Neal has. He will be leaned upon this series for his leadership.

Vegas is a young team and their unprecedented success in the playoffs may make this feel like the first run of many for the Golden Knights, but not for Neal who is on the last year of his contract and came tantalizingly close to the Cup last season. He will play like there is no tomorrow because, for him, there may not be in Vegas.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky was one of the heroes of Game 7 with two goals to put away the Tampa Bay Lightning. That marked just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys for the young winger. Just two games before, Burakovsky was a healthy scratch and spoke to the media about his plans to speak with a sports psychologist in the offseason.

The talent is there and it certainly appears that the injury that kept him out earlier in the playoffs is largely behind him. Burakovsky’s issues have always been mainly between the ears. In a series against a fast team with strong depth, he can be an absolutely critical piece for the Caps. Hopefully, his Game 7 performance gave him the confidence he needs to continue to be effective.

4. Ryan Reaves: Vegas acquired both Reaves and Tomas Tatar around the trade deadline. If I were to tell you that through three rounds of the playoffs, both players were healthy, had played the same number of games (6) and had the same number of points (1), you’d think I was crazy. Yet, here we are.

Reaves was largely an afterthought in a complicated trade between Vegas, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators, but he has carved a nice role for himself on the Golden Knights’ fourth line and even scored the goal that sent Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final against the Winnipeg Jets.

Reaves is also an agitator on the ice, but what do the Caps do against a player like that when their normal fighter plays on the top line? We may see Reaves and Wilson come to blows this series, but it won't be very often because that is a bad tradeoff for the Caps.

5. Brooks Orpik: The elder statesman of the blue line, Orpik is the only player on the Caps with a Stanley Cup to his name and is the only one who has any idea what this experience is going to be like for the team.

Orpik is very diligent about keeping in shape which has allowed him to play in 81 games this season and all 19 playoff games despite being 37 years old, but you do have to wonder how much is left in the tank. Despite being the favorite whipping boy for the proponents of analytics, his physical play has been effective this postseason. The focus he placed on the skating in the offseason has paid dividends so far in matchups against the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Golden Knights will be the fastest team they have played yet. There is no denying Orpik is much more suited towards a physical style of game. Wil he continue to be effective or will Vegas exploit the Caps' third defensive pairing?

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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

The wait is finally over. 

After two decades, the Capitals are back in the Stanley Cup Final. 

After a convincing 4-0 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Capitals are in Vegas to take on the Golden Knights. They'll be facing off against a handful of familiar names, with former Caps GM George McPhee, fan favorite Nate Schmidt, and ex-Penguins goalie Marc Andre-Fluery are just a few of the names that'll be suiting up for Vegas. 

What will the X-factors in the series be? Who will be the unexpected heroes of Game 1? The action is almost underway, and here are all the details you need to know.

Game 1 Capitals at Golden Knights
Date: Monday, May 28
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Location: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, NV.
TV Channel: NBCSN 
How To Watch Live StreamingNBC Sports App Live Stream
Radio: Capitals Radio Network (106.7 FM)

WHEN IS GAME 1 OF THE CAPITALS-GOLDEN KNIGHTS SERIES?

Game 1 of the Capitals-Golden Knights 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final takes place on Monday, May 28 at 8:00 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV.

WHAT TV CHANNEL IS GAME 1 OF THE CAPITALS-GOLDEN KNIGHTS SERIES ON?

The TV broadcast of Game 1 between the Capitals and Golden Knights is on NBC. Capitals pre- and postgame coverage takes place on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

5:00 p.m. — Caps Cup Preview
6:00 p.m. — Caps GameDay Live
6:30 p.m. — Caps Face Off
7:00 p.m. — Caps GameTime
8:00 p.m. — Game 1 Capitals vs. Golden Knights
10:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
11:30 p.m. — Caps Overtime

WHERE CAN I STREAM CAPITALS vs. GOLDEN KNIGHTS GAME 1?

Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final between the Capitals and Golden Knights is available for online stream on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the NBC Sports live stream page.

CAPITALS vs. GOLDEN KNIGHTS GAME 1 OPEN THREAD

Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals digital producer JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.