If you’ve never run a marathon, there’s a humbling moment for every runner you may not know about. It’s when you hit the 13.1 mile marker — halfway there. After all I’ve been through, I’m only halfway there? It has to be how four teams feel when they reach the Eastern and Western Conference Final.
That’s right, folks. We are only halfway to figuring out who hoists the Stanley Cup at postseason’s end. If it’s been a grueling run for you being on the edge of your seat every night, imagine how the players feel.
Their bodies likely feel how one might directly after running a marathon.
After two rounds, only the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights remain. Who will continue to run to the finish line? Who will make it 3/4ths of the way only to lose feeling in their legs and disappear into the mass of people?
Almost there. Just power through the pain.
Does Tampa’s Experience Push Them Through to the Final?
Yes, thanks to big-game players. It’s no secret that the Lightning are the most experienced franchise of the four remaining. They’re the only team to even appear in a Stanley Cup Final since Washington did in 1998. And they’ve done this twice in that time.
A franchise’s overall success matters very little, though. The experience that comes into play is the combined 273 Eastern Final games that the Lightning roster has played. Eleven of those players were on the roster when Tampa defeated the New York Rangers in the 2015 Eastern Final.
Compare this to Washington’s 28 total Eastern Conference Final games, spread across three players: Brooks Orpik (13), Matt Niskanen (9) and Lars Eller (6).
When comparing Stanley Cups, Chris Kunitz of Tampa alone has more than the entire Capitals roster.
The one thing going for Washington is that neither the Jets or Predators franchises have reached the Western Conference Final, and not many of their players have done it with other teams. Does experience matter? When it comes to the intensity of the games … probably not. Every one of these players has seen an intense game throughout their careers, whether it be pre-NHL or during. Where it matters is longevity and playing through pain.
The Lightning have experienced the rigors of long runs and know what it takes to win. It’s a fast-paced, high-tempo game that rolls through all four lines to conserve energy. Although Washington can surely attest to hard-fought victories, its Tampa Bay’s veterans that will be the difference in this expectedly long series.
Factor in that Washington’s star center, Nicklas Backstrom, may be sidelined at least to start the series. The odds are playing in the Lightning’s favor.
Was Washington’s Emotional 2nd Round Win Breaking a Curse?
Unfortunately, no. Although the Capitals were victorious against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have knocked them out in consecutive seasons and went into the series with a 9-1 head-to-head series lead over Washington, it simply isn’t enough to thrust them into a winning position. That’s not to say they won’t be victorious, it’s just going to take more than momentum to get them by the high-flying Lightning.
The curse isn’t resting in Pennsylvania; it’s surrounding the franchise. Basically, the curse is yet to be lifted. That will happen when the Capitals win a game in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Capitals made a huge jump when they finally moved past the Penguins. However, even though Pittsburgh is a two-time Cup defender, they weren’t the strongest team in the Eastern Conference this postseason. For my money, that title belongs to the Lightning. It’s an accomplishment to beat the Penguins, especially given the Capitals’ playoff history, but it’s something completely different to defeat Tampa.
This will be another competitive series for Washington, as Tampa’s snipers will look to test Braden Holtby, who has been a revelation since sitting out the first two games of the playoffs (8-3, 2.04 GAA, .926 save percentage). If the Caps’ starter can continue his hot play, and the defense in front of him continues playing solid, Washington may be able to stymie the Lightning. It will also take Washington’s captain and the league’s fourth leading goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin (8), to rise to the challenge and continue to have a noteworthy playoff year.
If all cylinders are firing for the Capitals, they can surely win this series. They have every box checked on what teams need to win Stanley Cups.
It’s just that Tampa Bay is that much better.
The Lightning’s five-game defeat of the Boston Bruins was an impressive feat. The Bruins are no slouches and Tampa defeated them in every aspect of the game. Right now, there is no reason to believe they can’t do the same to Washington.
Are You Actually Going to Pick Against the Golden Knights Again?
Not anymore. Just like so many other people, I didn’t really give the Golden Knights a chance in Rd. 1. In Rd. 2, I believed they could win, but still picked them to lose in seven games. I’m not making that mistake again.
The Knights are the real deal. Marc-Andre Fleury seems to have completely shaken off the cobwebs that was so many dismal playoff performances. Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault are proving to be formidable playoff opponents. The Vegas Golden Knights are a Stanley Cup contender and it’s time to admit they could actually do the impossible in their first season: finish as the league champions.
After Vegas’ 7-0 drubbing of the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of their semifinal series, the Golden Knights only outscored the Sharks 15-14 in the final five games. The Sharks, known for a full offensive blitz throughout the lineup, were outgunned in what was a close series. This comes just one series after Vegas’ first round sweep over the Los Angeles Kings — a matchup in which the Golden Knights crept by the Kings, outscoring them by a slim 7-3 margin with every game decided by one goal, in a defense-heavy series.
The point? The NHL’s newest team can play any style against any opponent and come out on top. The roster is chalked full of NHL talent that literally comes from all different types of strategies and playbooks. Head coach Gerard Gallant has put in his due diligence on how to harness it and use it to his advantage.
Who is the X-Factor for Winnipeg to Take the Series?
Connor Hellebuyck. You saw Game 7 against the Nashville Predators, right? Sure, the Jets’ offense took care of business, but they don’t play without all that confidence if Hellebuyck isn’t stopping pucks behind them.
The Vezina Trophy candidate stopped 36 of 37 Nashville shots, including some dazzling saves late in the contest. This wasn’t just a flash in the pan, though. Hellebuyck has been doing this throughout his entire first postseason.
Posting a 8-4 record with a .927 save percentage, 2.24 goals-against average and two shutouts, the American netminder will have to continue his impressive play if the Jets are going to stop the Golden Knights from advancing. Of course, this depends on his defense continuing to outwork every foe they face — they’ve allowed the second least shots against per game (28.6) of all playoff teams. Ice-time leaders Dustin Byfuglien (26:21) and Jacob Trouba (22:12) influence a team of steady defenders who box out opponents and clear out rebounds as well as anyone in the league.
If team point leader Mark Scheifele (9G-5A–14P) can continue to be a difference maker and Patrik Laine can find the back of the net with more regularity (currently three goals in the postseason), the Jets can come out of this series victorious.
Rd. 3 Predictions
Western Conference Final
Winnipeg Jets vs Vegas Golden Knights: Golden Knights in 6. They just have too many weapons that are all firing this postseason. They seem to be a team destined for greatness and the Jets, who would be the victors in the Western Conference Final any other year, are an unfortunate casualty.
Eastern Conference Final
Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: Lightning in 6. Washington has finally reached the Eastern Final again, but they are matched by a team that gets the edge in goaltending and defense. The scale tips to Tampa simply because they roll three reliable pairings and a Vezina-caliber goaltender every night. This trumps Washington’s ability to score goals in bunches.
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