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PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Tampa’s advantage, underrated Gallant

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1. What do the Capitals need to improve upon from Round 2 against the Lightning?

SEAN: Barry Trotz should certainly realize the Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line experiment should never happen again. Tom Wilson is back from suspension, but should there ever be a need for a tweak, he can’t consider that option again. Another improvement would be staying out of the penalty box. The Capitals have been shorthanded the most of any NHL team this postseason and their penalty kill has only been successful 79.1 percent of the time through two rounds. Now they’re facing a Lightning power play that’s been clicking at a 26 percent rate in each of the first two rounds. Discipline will be key.

JAMES: Honestly, the Capitals have performed far better than expected during these playoffs, with Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby standing out as being particularly effective. That said, Barry Trotz might need to be a little more willing to make in-game tweaks. The standout example is sticking with Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line during Game 4 despite that clearly not working. Trotz eventually relented, but the Lightning are probably more capable of exploiting such stubbornness. (At least Tom Wilson’s suspension is over, so that specific lineup problem might not be an issue. Of course, the Stamkos – Kucherov line could force some maneuvering, too.)

ADAM: There is not a lot because they have played well so far, but discipline maybe? Discipline in the sense that Tom Wilson needs to stop hitting people in the head when he returns, and discipline in the sense that they need to just stay out of the penalty box. They’ve already been shorthanded 43 times this postseason, most in the NHL in the playoffs, and have had been shorthanded at least four times in eight of their first 12 games. And their penalty kill has not exactly been great, converting on just 79 percent of their opportunities. It has not hurt them yet, but that can swing a series. Especially against a team like Tampa Bay.

JOEY: They have to find a way to do a better job of neutralizing the opposition’s top line. Sure, the trio of Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist was tough to stop, but one of the main reasons they moved on to the Eastern Conference Final was because Pittsburgh got to secondary scoring. This time, they can’t let Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Miller dominate because the Bolts are deep and they have other players that can hurt the opposition. Tampa managed to advance to this point without getting much from their top performers, which is pretty scary. The Capitals have to make sure that the Lightning’s best players don’t dominate. Easier said than done.

SCOTT: Washington was good in the second round. Their power play has been clicking all playoffs. Braden Holtby has found his stride again and they’re a confident bunch after beating the Pittsburgh Penguins finally. But they need someone not named Alex Ovechkin and Evegny Kuznetsov to carry the offensive burden. Both are capable at doing so, surely, and we saw it against the Penguins. But secondary scoring could use a boost, for sure. 

2. What is the biggest advantage the Lightning hold over the Capitals?

SEAN: You might say depth, but Washington got contributions from the likes of Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana and Brett Connolly. Heck, even Alex Chiasson potted a big goal. If that continues, that category can be marked as even. I’d give them an edge on the blue line. Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh can play heavy minutes and Braydon Coburn has been excelling with fewer minutes compared to the regular season. The Capitals will look to give their third pairing of Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos favorable minutes, but that’s something Tampa can try and exploit with home-ice advantage.

JAMES: The Lightning boast a better defense. All due respect to John Carlson on that contract year tear and the underrated Matt Niskanen, but Washington has no Victor Hedman, and Ryan McDonagh seems like he’s settling in. If Nicklas Backstrom can’t play, Tampa Bay’s two lines could be another big edge, as Brayden Point‘s showing that his strong regular season play has been no fluke. If Point isn’t a star, he’s awfully close.

ADAM: There seems to be a belief that the Lightning are just going to roll through the Capitals, but I just do not see it. I think these two teams are pretty evenly matched in the sense that they each have superstar forwards, they each have elite goalies, and they each have some pretty deep offenses. I think if Tampa Bay has one thing going for it over Washington it’s that it has a legitimate No. 1, elite-level defenseman in Victor Hedman and the Capitals don’t. John Carlson is good, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not Victor Hedman. And having that guy that can play half of a game and follow around a top player and shut him down is a pretty big advantage to have.

JOEY: The Lightning are clearly superior on the blue line. Sure, the Capitals have John Carlson, but there’s a steep drop off after him. The Bolts have Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman and Mikhail Sergachev. Even Dan Girardi has been relatively useful during this run. If McDonagh can kick it up a notch, that can put even more distance between these teams. The two sides are pretty evenly matched after that. They both have multiple lines that can score and goaltenders that can play at a high level.

SCOTT: Experience. Tampa has a combined 273 games of Conference Final experience to Washington’s measly 28. Washington has three players who’ve reached the penultimate round whereas the Lightning have nearly their whole roster with 18 players. This is new territory for most of these Capitals players.

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3. What’s been the most impressive part of this Winnipeg run?

SEAN: I hope the hockey world is taking note of what Mark Scheifele is doing. Seven of his 11 goals came on the road in Nashville in the second round. He’s blossomed into an elite level player over the last several year and has been nearly a point-per-game player since the 2015-16 NHL season. He’s a hockey nerd, even if he’s not a fan of that description. He’s worked with Adam Oates for the last few years, which has greatly improved his skills and made him a better 200-foot player. Now we’re finally getting to see all that work on display on a grander stage.

JAMES: This feels like a team that’s “been here before,” or maybe an Exhibit A for why people frequently make too big of a deal about “experience.” The Jets were down 3-0 and wouldn’t be denied in a comeback win. Connor Hellebuyck has been steadier than most veterans would be. They’ve played well enough to turn something that would dominate headlines (Patrik Laine struggling to score, at least by his standards) into a footnote. This team has few discernible weaknesses.

ADAM: I knew the Jets had an amazing offense and that Mark Scheifele was one of the driving forces behind it, but I wasn’t quite prepared for him to have a playoff run like this. He has been simply outstanding and seems to have two points every single night. He has quietly been one of the most productive players in the league the past few years and this postseason has been a pretty big statement from him to make a name for himself across the league.

JOEY: Their ability to win games on the road has been nothing short of remarkable. Through two rounds, Winnipeg has gone 4-2 away from home, including three wins at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Mark Scheifele scored seven road goals during their second-round series, which is now an NHL record. In their three road wins against the Predators, Winnipeg won by a total of 11 goals. Going into Vegas won’t be easy, but if there’s a team that can get the job done there it’s the Jets.

SCOTT: Their ability to face compartmentalize each game, specifically losses, and bounce back the next night. The Jets lost in double-overtime in Game 2 in Nashville bounced back to win Game 3 despite the heartbreak two nights earlier. In Game 6, when they laid an egg in a 4-0 loss with a chance to clinch the series, the Jets again regrouped and put in perhaps their best performance of the playoffs in a 5-1 win in Game 7. That game had all sorts of pressure riding on it and the Jets handled it in stride.

4. Despite a Jack Adams Award nomination, is Gerard Gallant an underrated head coach?

SEAN: When the success of the Golden Knights is brought up, worthy praise goes to Jonathan Marchessault, Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, among others. But Gallant’s name is sometimes left out that discussion. In his second chance as an NHL head coach he helped turn the Florida Panthers around only to be dumped 22 games into last season. Then he gets thrown behind the bench of an expansion team and has to figure out the best line combinations for a group of players who have never played together. Vegas’ success wasn’t something that was gradually built up — they’ve been a good team since the start of the season. Credit to Gallant and his staff for what they’ve done. He’ll win coach of the year by a landslide, but probably still not get enough credit for the job done this season, no matter how it ends.

JAMES: Being that he’s a lock to win the Jack Adams by an enormous margin, I’d say he’s rated just fine. Now, if there are people who are saying that Vegas is running on luck alone, then Gallant would be underrated. Sure, he’s enjoyed outstanding goaltending, but this team kept humming along even when their netminders were barely luckier than Spinal Tap drummers early in 2017-18. This team also plays an exciting, and most importantly, fitting style. Other coaches might think “I need to follow Jacques Lemaire’s lead and make this expansion team be slow and boring to limit chances.” Gallant should be credited for taking a courageous and entertaining approach, and lauded for it actually working.

And, really, the best tests of how he should be rated are yet to come. Between the remainder of this run and avoiding a sophomore slump next season, we’ll get an even better idea of the guy pulling the strings.

ADAM: I never really understood all of the fuss when the Panthers fired him last year. I thought a new front office had the right to bring in their guy and Gallant didn’t really have a track record that made it seem like an obvious mistake. But man, what a job he’s done this year. Coaching is one of those things that is difficult to evaluate, but I think the way he’s kind of turned his players loose and has them playing a fast, quick game that never lets up no matter what the score is in the third period is the right choice. I think he also deserves a ton of credit for getting the most out of some players on the roster, and I’m not necessarily talking about a player like William Karlsson. I mean more specifically a player like Deryk Engelland becoming a useful, regular, 25-minute per night defenseman.

JOEY: Coming into this season, he was definitely underrated, but now that the Golden Knights have had so much success, I feel like he’s been getting a decent amount of love from the hockey world. GM George McPhee did a great job of selecting players, but Gallant has really brought them together as a unit and he has them playing a style that fits them perfectly. This whole year has been a Gallant/Vegas love fest (rightfully so), so I don’t think he’s overrated anymore. Getting a cab on the streets of Vegas probably isn’t an issue for him.

SCOTT: I think you might have said this before the start of the season. Let got in Florida for no good reason, Gallant was quickly snatched up by George McPhee and the Golden Knights. But to see what he’s been able to do as he glued together pieces from teams around the NHL is remarkable, and a testament to his abilities as a head coach. He’s getting the credit he is due now, when before he didn’t. He’s underrated no more.

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PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
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NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Capitals vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The matchup between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets will see a pair of teams that have failed to make long playoff runs in recent history. The Jackets have never made it out of the first round, while the Caps haven’t made it further than the second round in the “Ovechkin era”.

For the first time in three seasons, the Capitals didn’t come away with the Presidents’ Trophy. That might not be a bad thing considering they got knocked off in the second round each of the last two years they took home the regular-season award. Even though they didn’t finish with the best record in the league in 2017-18, the spotlight will still be bright if they fail to make a run again this year.

They already lost a number of key free agents over the last couple of years and potentially losing John Carlson would be another devastating blow to their Cup window. Saying it’s a do-or-die year for the Capitals is probably a little excessive, but they aren’t getting any younger, that much is clear.

Washington finished the year with a Metropolitan-best 49-26-7 record. That was good enough to give them 105 points in the standings, which was sixth-best in the entire NHL.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

As for the Blue Jackets, they had an up-and-down year. They won some games early in the year, despite not playing good hockey, per their head coach John Tortorella. They hit a major bump in the road in the middle of the year before finally getting back on track at the end of the season. Of course, having Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes certainly helps smooth over some of the rough patches that occur during a season.

Have they peaked too early? That remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that they saved their best hockey for the end of the regular season. Although they didn’t finish in the top three in the Metro, they’re probably happy to avoid the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions, who have knocked them out of the playoffs each of the last two times they were in them.

Despite having three more wins than the Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus finished in the first Wild Card spot in the East while the Flyers were third in the Metro (Philadelphia lost 14 games in OT/shootouts). The Blue Jackets had a 45-30-7 record, but three of those losses came against the Capitals. They only managed to take down Washington once in their four meetings with their division rival.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Washington: The Capitals have one of the most dynamic forward groups in the league. Led by Rocket Richard winner Alex Ovechkin (49 goals, 87 points), they have the ability to put the puck in the net as regularly as any other team in the playoffs. Outside of Ovechkin, the Caps also have solid depth down the middle with Nicklas Backstrom (21 goals, 71 points), Evgeny Kuznetsov (27 goals, 83 points), Lars Eller (18 goals, 38 points) and Jay Beagle. That doesn’t even include the likes of T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson (14 goals, 35 points) and Andre Burakovsky (12 goals 25 points). The Caps are set up front. Oshie missed the final game of the season, but he’s expected to be ready for the start of the playoffs.

Columbus: Cam Atkinson (24 goals, 46 points) got off to a rough start this season, but he emerged as one of the key figures in the Blue Jackets’ turnaround late in the season. They may not have a superstar like Ovechkin, Backstrom or Kuznetsov, but they have more than enough depth to help them get by. Atkinson, Artemi Panarin (27 goals, 82 points), Nick Foligno (15 goals, 33 points), Boone Jenner (13 goals, 32 points), Pierre-Luc Dubois (20 goals, 48 points), Oliver Bjorkstrand (11 goals, 40 points) Alexander Wennberg (eight goals, 35 points) and Thomas Vanek (15 points in 19 games with Columbus) can all help facilitate offense.

Advantage: Capitals. They’re superior down the middle and the overall quality and depth is simply better than what Columbus has at their disposal. Oh, and that Ovechkin guy makes a big difference, too.

DEFENSE

Washington: The Capitals have a quality number one defenseman in Carlson (15 goals, 68 points), but there’s a steep drop off after that. Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Dmitry Orlov have the experience of being in the playoffs before, while Michal Kempny, Christian Djoos, Jakub Jerabek and Madison Bowey will attempt to serve as more than just depth pieces at this crucial time of year.

Columbus: Zach Werenski (16 goals, 37 points) and Seth Jones (16 goals, 57 points) arguably make up the best pairing in the NHL. Matchups will be key in this series, and Tortorella being able to lean on those two could be the difference between winning the round and going home early. Those two are elite, there’s no denying that. Don’t be surprised if you see them log close to 30 minutes per game in the postseason. Columbus also has Markus Nutivaara, Ryan Murray, David Savard and Stanley Cup champion Ian Cole on the back end.

Advantage: Columbus. It’s clear that the Capitals don’t have a pairing that comes close to what Jones and Werenski can do. The duo have the ability to be game-changers in this series. But don’t sleep on Nutivaara, either. He’s another useful asset for this team.

GOALTENDING:

Washington: Under normal circumstances, the Capitals would have an advantage between the pipes because they have Braden Holtby, but the veteran has struggled throughout the year (2.99 goals-against-average, .907 save percentage). He managed to play better down the stretch, which is encouraging if you’re a Caps fan. But Philipp Grubauer has been named the starter in Game 1. It’ll be interesting to see if they utilize both in the series.

Columbus: Sergei Bobrovsky (2.42 goals-against-average, .921 save percentage) has probably been the most consistent Blue Jacket all year. When their stars weren’t performing early on, it was Bobrovsky that bailed them out. There’s no denying it, as good as some of the forwards and defensemen are on this team, he’s the backbone of the operation. The Russian netminder has the ability to steal a game, a series and potentially a Cup. Solving him won’t be easy.

Advantage: Columbus. The Capitals may have two capable goaltenders, but the Blue Jackets have “the” goaltender. That’s not to say that Grubauer or Holtby can’t get hot, but if you look at the body of work that each of these three players put in this season, you can’t deny that Bobrovsky is the best of the bunch. He has the ability to push the Blue Jackets over the top.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Washington: As you’d imagine, the Capitals finished the regular season with the seventh best power play in the NHL at 22.5 percent. Ovechkin led the way with 17 goals on the man-advantage. The Caps rely heavily on their top five players when it comes to power-play production. Carlson (32), Ovechkin (31) Kuznetsov (30), Backstrom (26), Oshie (18) led the Caps in points on the power play. The sixth best forward in that category was Lars Eller, and he only had six.

The Caps were in the middle of the pack when it came to the penalty kill during the regular season. At 80.3 percent, they were the 15th-best PK unit in the league.

Columbus: The Blue Jackets power play was near the basement of the NHL for most of the early part of the season, but a slight improvement allowed them to jump up to 25th in the league at 17.2 percent. Typically, power play goals are harder to come by in the playoffs, so the Jackets have to make sure that they get some kind of production from that unit.

Believe it or not, they were even further down the list when it came to the penalty kill, as they ranked 27th in the league at 76.2 percent. Only Tampa, Philadelphia, Montreal and the New York Islanders were worse. Ironically enough, two of those four teams are in the playoffs.

Advantage: Washington. The numbers couldn’t be any clearer.

X-FACTORS

Washington: Yes, Grubauer is starting Game 1, but the Caps’ X-factor still has to be Holtby. If he can regain his Vezina Trophy-winning form, he’ll make the Capitals that much more of a force this postseason. If he goes back to being the mediocre goalie he was throughout the 2017-18 regular season, it’ll be tougher for them to get through to the next round. That’s not to say that Grubauer can’t get the job done, but the Caps are a better team when Holtby is on his game.

Columbus: Atkinson managed to find his game, thankfully, but he’s going to have to keep it going right through the postseason. He finished the year by collecting 25 points in his final 20 games, which was huge for Columbus because it gave them another red-hot option behind Panarin.

PREDICTION

Capitals in seven games. Both teams will be eager to put their lackluster playoff track records behind them, but the Capitals’ star-power will push them over the edge. Even though Washington is a better team overall, it still won’t be easy for them to dispose of the Blue Jackets.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

WATCH LIVE: Nashville Predators vs. Washington Capitals

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Nashville Predators

Forwards

Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson

Kevin FialaKyle TurrisCraig Smith

Colton SissonsNick BoninoRyan Hartman

Miikka SalomakiMike FisherAustin Watson

Defense

Roman JosiRyan Ellis

Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban

Alexei EmelinAnthony Bitetto / Matt Irwin

Goaltender: Juuse Saros

NHL On NBCSN: Predators can clinch Central Division, Western Conference

Washington Capitals

Forwards

Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson

Andre BurakovskyNick BackstromTJ Oshie

Brett ConnollyLars EllerDevante Smith-Pelly

Chandler Stephenson-Travis Boyd- Alex Chiasson

Defense

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson

Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Goalie: Philip Grubauer

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Wednesday Night Rivalry – Rangers at Capitals

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New York Rangers

Chris Kreider / Mika Zibanejad / Jesper Fast

Kevin Hayes / Filip Chytil / Mats Zuccarello

Jimmy Vesey / Lias Andersson / Ryan Spooner

Cody McLeod / Vladislav Namestnikov / Pavel Buchnevich

Marc Staal / Neal Pionk

Brady Skjei / Ryan Sproul

John Gilmour / Rob O'Gara

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

[Rangers – Capitals preview]

Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin / Evgeny Kuznetsov / Tom Wilson

Andre Burakovsky / Nicklas Backstrom / T.J. Oshie

Shane Gersich / Lars Eller / Devante Smith-Pelly

Chandler Stephenson / Jay Beagle / Alex Chiasson

Dmitry Orlov / Matt Niskanen

Michal Kempny / John Carlson

Brooks Orpik / Christian Djoos

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

WATCH LIVE: Washington Capitals at Anaheim Ducks

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Washington Capitals

Alex OvechkinNicklas BackstromTom Wilson

Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie

Brett ConnollyLars EllerAndre Burakovsky

Chandler StephensonJay BeagleDevante Smith-Pelly

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen

Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

[Capitals – Ducks preview]

Anaheim Ducks

 

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Andrew CoglianoRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Jason ChimeraDerek Grant — Chris Kelly

Cam FowlerBrandon Montour

Marcus PetterssonHampus Lindholm

Josh MansonKevin Bieksa

Starting goalie: John Gibson