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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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Is Alex Ovechkin still the best winger in the NHL?

Is Alex Ovechkin still the best winger in the NHL?

When you win the Rocket Richard Trophy for the most goals, lead your team to a Stanley Cup and win the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, you certainly belong in the discussion among the best in the game.

Even after Alex Ovechkin's incredible season, however, he falls just short of the top spot, according to NHL Network.

The NHL Network revealed the "Top 20 Wings Right Now" rankings as part of its countdown series on Sunday and Ovechkin came in second. Ahead of him was Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

A compelling case could certainly be made for both players. Kucherov finished third in the NHL in points with a career-high 100 points (29 goals, 61 assists). Ovechkin, meanwhile, led the NHL in goals with 49 in his 87-point season.

The main argument for Kucherov is that he is 25 while Ovechkin will turn 33 in September and the ranking is for "right now." Ovechkin, however, is still basking in the glow of the Caps' Stanley Cup run which happened just a short two months ago. He also beat and outplayed Kucherov when the Caps met the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, outscoring him with seven points (four goals, three assists) compared to Kucherov's five (one goal, four assists).

Ovechkin's case is a compelling one as evidenced by the fact that he edged out Kucherov in the fan voting.

And then...there's analyst Mike Johnson who believes Ovechkin is neither No. 1 or No. 2. In fact, he barely cracks the top five.

Father Time is undefeated and there will come a point where Ovechkin begins to decline. But when the last competitive NHL hockey game was played, it featured an Ovechkin goal and him hoisting both the Conn Smythe and the Stanley Cup. Two months wasn't that long ago so perhaps we should not be expecting his production to fall off a cliff just yet.

The Great 8 has a way of making those quick to bury him look pretty foolish. Will he keep up that trend this season?

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2018-19 Metropolitan Division preview: Carolina Hurricanes

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2018-19 Metropolitan Division preview: Carolina Hurricanes

The Capitals have won the Metropolitan Division three straight years. Can they defend their title? Here’s a preview of each team in the division for the 2018-19 season.

Today's team: Carolina Hurricanes

2017-18 Results: 36-35-11, 83 points, sixth in the division. Did not qualify for the playoffs.

Notable acquisitions: F Micheal Ferland, F Andrei Svechnikov, D Dougie Hamilton, D Calvin de Haan, G Petr Mrazek, head coach Rod Brind’Amour

Notable departures: F Elias Lindholm, F Joakim Nordstrom, F Derek Ryan, F Jeff Skinner, F Lee Stempniak, D Noah Hanifin, G Cam Ward, head coach Bill Peters

When they will play the Caps: Dec. 14 in Raleigh, Dec. 27 in Washington, March 26 in Washington, March 28 in Raleigh

Offseason recap: The offseason was one of change for the Hurricanes as new owner Tom Dundon tried to make his mark. Peters and Ron Francis are out, Brind’Amour and Don Waddell are in as coach and general manager. Carolina’s new front office had a busy offseason with a number of splashy moves.

Hanifin, Lindholm and Skinner all will have new homes next season as the Hurricanes traded all three players in two big-time trades. Hanifin and Lindholm netted the team Hamilton, Ferland and a prospect while Skinner brought back a prospect, a second, a third and a sixth-round pick.

In addition, Carolina also added Svechnikov with the second-overall pick in the draft.

Biggest strength: Defense

Carolina was solid defensively last season, it just didn't seem that way because of how bad the goaltending was. Adding de Haan and Hamilton bolsters what was already a formidable blue line.

Biggest weakness: Goaltending

Did I mention how bad their goaltending was last season? Darling and Ward combined for a .909 save percentage, better only than the Buffalo Sabres. Ward put up better numbers (2.73 GAA, .906 save percentage) than Darling (3.18 GAA, .888 save percentage), but he has moved on to the Chicago Blackhawks. To replace him, the Hurricanes picked up Mrazek who also struggled last season (3.03 GAA, .902 save percentage).

So to recap, Ward and Darling both had subpar years, but to replace Ward the Hurricanes picked up a goalie who was worse.

It makes sense that Carolina would want to give Darling another shot at earning the starting job considering they traded for him to be their starter of the future, but just because the goaltending could not get much worse than last season is no guarantee it will be better.

2018-19 season outlook: The Hurricanes enter the season with a lot of question marks.

Can Brind'Amour handle the responsibilities of being a head coach in the NHL with zero head coaching experience at any level? Did they do enough to address their scoring woes? Will someone play like a starting-caliber goalie? Is Dundon breaking the mold of an NHL owner or will his meddling negatively impact the team? Will Hamilton adjust to his new team? Is Svetchnikov ready for a top-line role in his rookie season? Is Sebastian Aho a center?

If they can find positive answers to all of those questions, this is a team that could surprise. More likely, however, there are simply too many issues in Carolina right now for this team to make any real noise.

A new owner, new general manager, new head coach and a new-look roster are too much for one team to adjust to in one season.

2018-19 season prediction: The Hurricanes miss the playoffs and it's not close.