The Washington Capitals advanced to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998 after defeating the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in six games.
It’s the first time Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin has advanced to the Conference Finals in his career, a landmark that has haunted the Russian superstar throughout his career. Finally, at age 32, Ovechkin has an opportunity to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals and put the narrative that he cannot lead a winning team to rest.
Ovechkin’s career will always exist in relation to that of Sydney Crosby’s because the two stars entered the league at the same time. Crosby-led Pittsburgh teams have advanced to at least the Eastern Conference Final five times in his career. For fans and analysts that place emphasis on team success in a star player’s legacy, finally making it to the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs was imperative for Ovechkin’s career.
But it’s not like he had to drag the Capitals there on his own; Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom make up one of the league’s best one-two center pairings, and John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov carry Washington on the back end. The Capitals have been primed for a Stanley Cup run for a few years now; it’s not hard to argue they were a better team on paper last season. But for the last two years they ran into a Pittsburgh Penguins team that won the Stanley cup two years in a row. This year, Washington turned the tables and eliminated the Penguins themselves.
Standing in Washington’s way now are the Tampa Bay Lightning, indisputably the East’s best team after putting away the Boston Bruins in only five games. And while Washington is flying high after winning their last two games, they have to face a Lightning team that has only played five games in almost three weeks.
Tampa Bay is well rested, well oiled, and coming off a series in which they systematically shut down Boston’s offense. All but four Lightning skaters boast a Corsi percentage above 50 percent, according to hockey-reference.com. The Lightning are a possession monster these playoffs, especially after knocking off Boston, which was one of the league’s best possession teams in the regular season.
Washington skates a capable NHL playoff roster, and head coach Barry Trotz is often considered among the league’s best, but it’s not a stretch to wonder if a lack of depth will burn the Capitals against Tampa Bay. It’s what happened to Boston in the second round; the top line performed all postseason, but in the second round complementary pieces like Jake DeBrusk and Rick Nash faded, and it was all too easy for the Lightning to focus efforts on shutting down the likes of Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak.
The Capitals may be even more top heavy; only three Washington players scored more than twenty goals this year, and one of them, Nicklas Backstrom, is questionable to return from an injury for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. So far in the postseason, the Capitals have found depth scoring in TJ Oshie (8 points), Lars Eller (7 points) and Tom Wilson (7 points), but they have to prepare for Tampa Bay’s defensive prowess (1.51 goals against/game this postseason). Boston boasted arguably the league’s top line this season; if they could not overcome the shortcomings of their depth, it won’t be an easy task for Ovechkin and the Capitals either.