NHL Conference Finals 2018 Preview and Predictions
NHL Eastern and Western Conference Finals
The Eastern and Western Conference Finals start up this weekend. The Eastern showdown between Washington and Tampa Bay gets going on Friday, May 11, 2018, with the Western series starting the following day. No team should be counted out in either series and fans should expect some excellent hockey over the next two weeks.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Washington Capitals
The Atlantic and Metropolitan Division winners met in the Eastern Conference Finals. Alexander Ovechkin finally got the monkey off his back, betting the Pittsburgh Penguins to advance to his first Eastern Conference Finals. The Lightning looked unstoppable in their five-game series win over Boston, quickly making their third Eastern Conference Finals appearance in the last four seasons.
Regular Season and Playoffs History
This series is the third meeting all-time between these two franchises in the postseason. Tampa Bay is 8-2 all-time against Washington in the playoffs. In their most recent meeting (2011), Steven Stamkos and the Lightning easily dispatched Ovechkin and the Capitals, winning the series 4-0.
The Capitals lost the regular season series to the Tampa Bay Lightning this season. They had not lost a regular-season series to Tampa Bay since 2007. It was a close three games, with each team winning one at home and the Lightning taking the third meeting in Washington. Tampa Bay outscored the Capitals nine to eight over the three games.
This is uncharted waters for Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby. The Washington Capitals not advanced to a Conference Finals since 1998 and none of the Capitals stars were even close to playing in the NHL yet. The Tampa Bay Lightning have the more experienced group as Stamkos, Nitika Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy are just a few of the players remaining from Tampa Bay’s 2015 Eastern Conference winning roster.
Edge: Tampa Bay Lightning
During the regular season, the Tampa Bay Lighting paced the NHL with 296 goals (or 37 more than the sixth-ranked Capitals scored). However, through the first two rounds of the NHL postseason, the Capitals are outscoring the Lightning. The Capitals lead all NHL teams (tied with the Winnipeg Jets) scoring an average of 3.58 goals per game.
Much of the Capitals success is due to Ovechkin and Backstrom having the best postseasons of their careers. The two veterans have combined to score 11 goals and 28 points in 23 combined games.
None of Tampa Bay star players are having quite as strong a postseason as Ovechkin and Backstrom. Kucherov has chipped in 12 points in ten games, but outside of him, no player has truly taken charge on offence for the Lightning. Maybe this speaks to Tampa’s depth on offence as they have eight forwards with at least five points this postseason.
Overall though, the Capitals top line plus the 14 points from centre Evgeny Kuznetsov makes their offence look better entering the Conference Finals.
Statistically worse than Washington during the regular season, Tampa Bay’s defence has stepped up in the playoffs. The addition of Ryan McDonagh is paying dividends at the right time, helping the group allow fewer shots, scoring chances and goals. They still struggle to kill off penalties and against Washington’s 30.9% power play that could cost Tampa Bay a few games.
Washington’s defence has been surprisingly productive this postseason. John Carlson has 11 points (ten on the power play) in 12 games, Brooks Orpik is a team best +9, and Dmitry Orlov has already doubled his previous playoff high in points. The group looked excellent in Washington’s Game Six win over Pittsburgh, limiting the Penguins to just 23 shots.
Tampa would have the edge on defence if they could ever get their penalty kill to function. However, until then the two teams are quite even on the blue line.
The Capitals started the playoffs with a bit of a goaltending controversy. After the worst regular season of his career, Holtby was not given the start in Washington’s first game of the playoffs. It was not until the second game did Holtby see action, allowing one goal (in overtime) in relief of Philip Grubauer. Since then Holtby has been superb. Holtby enters the Eastern Conference Finals with a 2.04 GAA, and .926 save percentage.
The Bolts will answer Holtby with Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy owns a .927 save percentage and 2.20 GAA this postseason in ten games. However, outside of one bad game against Boston (allowing five goals on 23 shots), he has been as good if not better than Holtby. With how great both goaltenders have looked through two rounds, neither team has an advantage in net.
Each team has a few other advantages. Tampa Bay has home ice, a deeper roster from top to bottom and arguably a better coach in Jon Cooper. Cooper has coached the Lightning to three Eastern Conference Finals over the last four years. The one year they did not make it, may have been his best coaching season. Despite missing the postseason, Cooper rallied an injury-ravaged Tampa squad to 94 points and the only positive goal differential for a team that missed the playoffs.
The Washington Capitals have the best goal-scorer in the series with Alexander Ovechkin. They also have a more reliable backup goaltender (although at this stage of the playoffs, relying on a backup goaltender is not a good strategy).
Edge: Tampa Bay
There is a lot to look forward to in this series. Both teams are stacked with talent all over the ice. While Tampa Bay may have a slightly better team overall, Washington’s impressive play, especially from Ovechkin and Backstrom, have them clicking at the right time. This series should be very competitive, with Washington grinding out a tough win in seven.
Winnipeg Jets vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Who would have thought at the beginning of the NHL season it would be the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Finals. The expansion Golden Knights entered the NHL tying for the worst odds to win the Stanley Cup. The Jets odds at the start of the season were better but typically ranked in the bottom-third of teams on hockey sportsbooks. Seven months later, the two franchises are one series win away from the Stanley Cup
Regular Season and Playoffs History
These two teams have never played in the postseason. This is also the first Conference Finals appearance for both franchises. The two teams played three times this season. The Knights won two of the three meetings. They split the two games in Winnipeg, while Vegas won 5-2 at home.
Neither franchise is that experienced in the playoffs. However, there are players in this series who have plenty of playoff experience. Knights’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is second on the active list for playoffs games played by a goaltender. With 125 games under his belt, Fleury will pass Henrik Lundqvist (128 games) to move into the top spot.
The Golden Knights also have the most experienced player in the series. James Neal has 90 games of playoff experience, scoring 28 goals and 51 points. Paul Stastny (the Jets trade deadline acquisition), leads the Jets roster with 67 games and 49 points. Overall though many of the players in this series are playing in their first Conference Finals.
The Knights flipped the switch on offence in their Second Round series win over the San Jose Sharks. After scoring only seven goals (1.75 per game) against the Kings in Round One, the Knights exploded for 22 goals over six games (3.50). The argument for (or against) the Knights’ offence is no player has scored more than four goals. While the balanced scoring is great, whether any player takes the lead in the Knights series against Winnipeg remains to be seen.
The Jets are tied with the Capitals for the highest scoring offence in the postseason season (averaging 3.58 goals per game). Mark Scheifele leads all NHL players with 11 goals this postseason (or one less than the top-three goal scorers on the Golden Knights).
Along with Scheifele, the Jets have gotten substantial contributions from Paul Stastny, Dustin Byfuglien, Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler. The four players have combined to score 52 points in 48 games. Overall, Winnipeg’s depth on offence gives them the advantage in this series.
Edge: Winnipeg Jets
While Marc-Andre Fleury is getting the majority of the credit for the Knights’ ability to limit teams to over 1.70 goals per game this postseason, the guys playing in front of him deserve some credit. Nate Schmidt is arguably the best defenceman in the playoffs this year.
While his counting numbers may not pop off the page, in 25:36 minutes of average ice-time this postseason he has done everything asked of him plus more. Schmidt, along with defencemen Brayden McNabb and Deryk Engelland have all done fantastic jobs slowing down opposing offences and keeping the puck out of the zone.
Winnipeg’s defence has been a little streakier in the postseason. The Jets have surrendered four goals or more four times in 12 games these playoffs. They also do not have overwhelming success on special teams, killing off only 74.2% of power plays.
Edge: Vegas Golden Knights
As great as Connor Hellebuyck has played for the Jets this postseason ( .927 save percentage and 2.25 GAA), no one has played as well as Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury enters the Western Conference Finals with a .951 save percentage and 1.53 GAA. Fleury’s .951 is just a point off the record for best save percentage in a postseason since 1969. Add in four shutouts (a career high), and Fleury is the best player so far in the 2018 NHL playoffs.
Pick: Vegas Golden Knights
Both teams in this series have great home-ice advantages. Vegas is turning into quite the hockey city while Winnipeg had the best record at home this season. Paul Maurice (Jets head coach) is the more seasoned coach in this matchup. However, what Gerard Gallant has done with his make-shift expansion roster this season is nothing short of brilliant.
Both franchises have a shot at advancing to their first Stanley Cup Finals. The Winnipeg Jets’ potent offence can keep them in any game. Fleury and the Golden Knights defence will have their work cut out for them this series. However, seeing what the Knights have accomplished over the first two rounds of the playoffs should have the team confident they have enough gusto to keep Winnipeg’s offence in check for enough games to win the series.
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