SCHEDULE: Game 1 Friday, Game 2 Sunday, Game 3 Tuesday, Game 4 Thursday
They’ve broken through. After more than a decade in the Ovechkin Era, and repeated attempts to run head-first (sometimes literally) through the forcefield between the second round and the conference final, the Caps finally found the weak point and got into the back half of the journey toward the Cup. Good for them, Ovie certainly deserves it. Seems a shame it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a very long stay, because they’re going to find an unholy machine waiting for them.
Goalies: Before this whole thing started, we said it might be better for Braden Holtby, who’s not ever really been a playoff dog except for last season, to come in and be the white knight to bail out Barry Trotz and the Caps after trying Phillip Grubauer in the first two games against the Jackets. That didn’t work, this did work, and now Holtby is playing awfully well. He only gave up 13 goals in the six games against the Pens, but then again he wasn’t asked to do all that much. The Caps only gave up more than 25 shots twice in six games, and that’s just about the best they can do. Holtby isn’t going to have a full-out meltdown with that kind of workload, but sadly that workload is probably going to get a whole lot heavier in this round.
You could say Vasilevskiy has had even less to do. He only had to face one player in the first round in Taylor Hall. He only had to face one line in the second round against the Bruins, and after Game 1 he gave up only seven goals in their four wins. He only saw over 30 shots once in those four wins, but the Lightning can probably hold the Caps to the same kind of output which certainly isn’t the case vice versa. Neither Holtby or Vasilevskiy have been here before so we have no idea how they’ll react. When this is all over, I doubt it’ll be because of either goalie primarily.
Defense: The Caps defense in the second round was basically what it was all season. John Carlson scores a ton on the power play, some at evens, and then they kind of turtle well enough to keep the other side from tearing the walls down. Orlov and Niskanen have been more than just useful, and basically nullified Crosby and Guentzel when the last series got decided. They’ll get the Stamkos and Kucherov assignment you’d think as often as possible, and based on how the last series ended the Caps are probably going to send their stall out to help them as much as possible with a trapping style that’s going to make you really understand Ibsen and welcome the void into your life.
I’m still not totally convinced by the Lightning’s defense, but because it hasn’t been seriously tested, and the Caps are likely to play this very conservatively, I don’t know that I have to be. Hedman might be enough, and will see plenty of Ovechkin with McDonagh you would think. Or if they wanted to play a funny joke they could throw McDonagh and Girardi at Ovie’s line just like the Rangers did and it always seemed to work even though everything tells you it shouldn’t. Also, Dan Girardi sucks. Anton Stralman isn’t much better these days as he gets older, but he’s enough. What the Bolts do have that the Caps don’t is a young, third-pairing bum-slayer in Mikhail Sergachev who has run wild most of these playoffs. That is when he’s played which really has been barely at all. Cooper needs to let this guy off the hook because the Caps will not have an answer and they’re probably going to need all the neutral zone busters they can find as the Caps dig trenches and set up barbed wire there.
Forwards: Even if the Caps were fully healthy, this is where the Lightning have the biggest advantage. And Backstrom and Burakovsky are not healthy. If they could not make the bell for an elimination game against the Penguins, only Washington’s Sisyphusian boulder they finally got up the hill, you have to imagine they’re really hurt. They’ll suit up at some point in this series, though Backstrom’s status for Game 1 is up in the air. Without him, this team is really just one line, and we saw what the Bolts did to a one-line team the last round. Lars Eller is great and all but he’s not enough. Especially when Tom Wilson is assuredly going to give away a couple dumbass power plays to the Lightning by trying to eat someone’s face in a bid to one-up Marchand or something.
We derided Swingin’ Jon Cooper’s choice to send Brayden Point and Palat and Johnson out against Boston’s main threat after Game 1. They spent the rest of the series giving that line a swirly. That goes with Stamkos and Kucherov and Miller (who’s been great) on the top line. Killorn and Gourde are a very decent third line. Basically, the Lightning are two to three times deeper than the Caps, and there just isn’t much they can do about it.
Prediction: The Caps have to gum this up as much as possible. They cannot run with the Lightning in any fashion. They don’t have the depth at forward. They’ll get outscored. So they’ll have to make everything 2-1 and hope Holtby goes nuclear or Vasilevskiy goes blind. They’re counting on Ovechkin or Oshie getting really hot, but if neither do they just don’t have the goals. The Lightning have the guns and they have the numbers. Crash before my eyes…Lightning in 5.