Before the puck drops in Game 1 of 2018 NHL Eastern Conference Finals between the Capitals and Lightning, fans and analysts alike will pore over every stat, every matchup, every piece of data we can find to try and figure out just who has the advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals between Washington and Tampa Bay.
This, however, is the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.
No matter how much you dive into the series, there are always certain factors that can change a series and remind you that you might as well throw away the stats when it comes to the postseason.
Here are a few x-factors that may end up swinging the series.
Capitals vs. Lightning Preview: The X-Factors
The Caps played Game 6 against Pittsburgh without three of their top-six forwards. Anything can happen in one game and Washington came away with the win, but chances are the Caps don't win a seven-game series against the Lightning if they are missing that many players. Washington will get Tom Wilson back from suspension for Game 1, but that still leaves Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky as question marks.
Burakovsky continues to progress as he skated in a non-contact jersey on Wednesday. The question is just how healthy is Backstrom? Can the Caps get through a very deep Tampa team without Backstrom? That’s a tall task. Washington needs him back as soon as possible.
2. The Second Line
Speaking of Backstrom, one reason he will be so important is because of who Tampa has on its second line. Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson is about as formidable a second line as a team can have.
The top lines for both teams are going to get their points. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are going to produce. Whether Backstrom plays or not, the Caps must get production from its second line.
Overall, Tampa appears to have more scoring depth. If Washington cannot even rely on getting production from its second line, they will be in trouble.
3. Goalie Fatigue
There’s no way around it, the Lightning’s roster is stacked. Their second line would replace the top line on most teams in the league, their blue line features one of the best defensemen in the world in Victor Hedman and in net, Andrei Vasilevskiy is a nominee for the Vezina Trophy. Given how good their lineup is, Holtby must be the better goalie in this series for Washington to win. The good news is that there is reason to believe the Caps could actually have an advantage between the pipes.
Holtby and Vasilevskiy’s numbers in the postseason thus far have been fairly comparable:
Braden Holtby: 11 GP, 8-3 record, .926 save percentage, 2.04 GAA, 0 shutouts
Andrei Vasilevskiy: 10 GP, 8-2 record, .927 save percentage, 2.20 GAA, 0 shutouts
Like Holtby, Vasilevskiy seemed to struggle down the stretch and even admitted publicly that he was dealing with fatigue.
After he said that, his numbers plummeted. In his final 10 appearances of the regular season, Vasilevskiy mustered only a .886 save percentage and 3.67 GAA. Vasilevskiy played 65 games in the regular season as compared to Holtby’s 54. The fact that Tampa has won both of its series in just five games certainly helps as he will get some time in between to recover, but the wear and tear of an NHL season does not disappear in just a week. He is about to play in the most high-intensity games he has played this season, every other day.
The longer this series goes on, the more fatigue could play a factor.
On paper, it is hard to see how Tampa loses. They have a deeper roster, more playoff experience, they have had more time to rest and have home-ice advantage. There is something to be said, however, for confidence and momentum.
Yes, the Lightning just beat the Boston Bruins, the second best team in the east and a team that many thought could win the Stanley Cup this season. The Capitals, however, just caught their white whale. They finally got over the hump of the second round and finally beat the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
When the US beat the Soviet Union in 1980, it didn’t matter that they still had to play Finland to win gold. When the Boston Red Sox overcame a 3-0 series deficit to beat the New York Yankees in 2004, it didn’t matter that they still had to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Sometimes when a sports team finally overcomes that impossible obstacle, when they climb that impassible mountain, it doesn’t matter how much further they have to go. The momentum and the confidence of that win can carry them all the way to the end.
It's not guaranteed now that this will happen. Just as often we see teams unable to get past the high of their achievement and ultimately cannot focus on finishing the job. But if you know what beating Pittsburgh means to the Capitals and to the city of Washington, it would not be surprising to see the Capitals come out with a lot of confidence and play a lot better than many expect.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
- Mark your calendars: Full ECF schedule
- Caps-Lighting: The ultimate preview
- Inside the Series: Players to watch for
- Predictions: Experts make their picks
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