Master, then pupil: How Capitals were built

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

If trades were bad hair metal singles, then the Filip Forsberg – Martin Erat trade was to George McPhee’s time with Washington as “Cherry Pie” was for Warrant.

(Click here for the relevant VH1 moment, but don’t play it out loud if you’re at work.)

Whenever Forsberg does something amazing – an increasingly frequent occurrence, honestly – someone on Hockey Twitter will make fun of that trade by McPhee. Make no doubt about it; that trade looked bad in the moment and ages as well as expired cherry pie.

It’s fair to criticize that deal to this day, especially in picturing Forsberg playing alongside the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom. It’s also far too easy to forget that McPhee was also responsible for those guys being on the roster, and for generally setting the foundation of a powerhouse team.

Boiling down 17 years as GM to one trade is probably even more unfair than reducing a band’s discography down to one single. (I’d be able to go deeper if I made a Faith No More comparison, so if you know your Warrant, do tell about their better moments in the comments. Or, stick up for “Cherry Pie.” This is the Internet, after all.)

The truth is that current GM Brian MacLellan was a lot like Stan Bowman in Chicago. He’s done masterful work in taking the Capitals to the next level, but it was McPhee who put together the core of this team.

Granted, MacLellan was right there with McPhee much of the time (much like Bowman as Dale Tallon’s apprentice), so you could quibble all day about how to slice up the credit. It’s easiest to break things down by who was actually GM, so let’s go with that.

Ultimately, the building of this team was very much about both men.

Genuine drafts

Let’s ignore the Petr Bondra era (which produced the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final run before 2018) and skip to the Capitals selecting Ovechkin with the top pick of the 2004 NHL Draft.

From that point on, McPhee constructed the core almost exclusively through strong selections. Ponder the crucial choices McPhee made, with many of them coming from outside the high-end, “no-brainer” range of picks. Scroll for some additional interesting picks.

  • Again, Ovechkin (1st in 2004). They also nabbed once-essential defenseman Mike Green at 29.
  • Nicklas Backstrom (4th in 2006). That draft also included two attempts at finding a goalie solution in Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault as the 177th pick.
  • The 2008 NHL Draft ended up being key, even though Anton Gustafsson (21st overall) didn’t pan out. Washington selected John Carlson with their other first-rounder (27th) and Braden Holtby in the fourth round (93rd pick). As you can see in “additional interesting picks,” McPhee kept swinging at goalies and hit a home run here.
  • While MarJo is now with the Devils, the Capitals selected underrated defenseman Dmitry Orlov with their second-round pick (55th overall) in 2009. [Golden Knight Cody Eakin was the 85th pick.]
  • They made some great picks in 2010, too. McPhee shrugged off “The Russian Problem” and got a huge steal with Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26th. They had more luck with goalies in the fourth round, as strong backup Philipp Grubauer was selected at 112.
  • The 2012 NHL Draft was maybe McPhee’s most controversial, and not just because that’s when he took Forsberg – who fell strangely that day – at 11. Tom Wilson also went at the 16th spot. Some decent supporting cast members were also selected in Chandler Stephenson (77th) and Christian Djoos (195).
  • McPhee’s last draft yielded Andre Burakovsky at pick 23, while Madison Bowey (53) is also notable.

Additional interesting picks: Mike Green at 29th in 2004; Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault in 2006; Karl Alzner went fifth in 2007; Marcus Johansson selected 24th in 2009.

As you can see from that bulleted list, McPhee drafted most of the biggest names on this roster.

The Capitals’ playoff misfortune doesn’t just bring unwarranted abuse to players like Alex Ovechkin; it also obscures Washington’s knack for finding serious talent in the first round, even when they don’t have high picks. Players like Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Carlson, Holtby, and Grubauer are allowing the Caps to sustain their success. It’s a lot like the Blackhawks unearthing nice later-round players like Brandon Saad and Ryan Hartman.

MacLellan brings it to the next level

As great as McPhee’s body of work actually looks, there’s no denying that things were starting to crumble when he was fired in 2014.

One area of need was behind the bench, as the Capitals were a real mess once things fell apart with Bruce Boudreau. The team also stumbled a bit in net before Holtby emerged as the start workhorse he is today.

MacLellan didn’t put together the core, yet he’s responsible for really tying the room together.

While people will mention that Barry Trotz’s future was in doubt as recently as his much-discussed handshake conversation with John Tortorella, there’s little point in denying that Trotz was a great hire. He helped bring a great defensive system to Washington, stopped messing around with Ovechkin’s position and reversed the malaise with Holtby. And now he’s hot lapping to happiness.

While McPhee laid down the foundation through fantastic drafting, MacLellan has supplemented that work by making some strong moves via trades and free agency.

In some cases, the most important signings were ones Mac didn’t make. Lesser executives would have paid too much to keep a one-dimensional blueliner like Karl Alzner, but the Capitals had the courage to let him walk. (All but the most stubborn old-school types in Montreal would probably agree that the Canadiens regret signing him.) Washington allowed Kevin Shattenkirk to leave despite all the sunk costs in acquiring him at the 2017 trade deadline.

T.J. Oshie‘s signing might not age well, yet it should be acknowledged that, with Ovechkin already at 33, the Capitals realize that their best chances are still in the present.

Not every move was deft. The Capitals can spin it anyway they want it, but Brooks Orpik‘s $5.5 million cap hit limits choices and probably forced useful (if crestfallen) players like Marcus Johansson out. We’ll also need to wait and see if Washington was right in waiting things out with Carlson, a pending UFA.

Still, the good outweighs the bad, especially if you ignore hindsight and realize that the Capitals were right in swinging for the fences with the Shattenkirk move.

Now that the hangover passed

Yes, this deep run was unlikely, or at least oddly timed after the best window for success seemingly passed. Still, this team won its division (again) and was built with the elements you’d expect a championship team to possess:

  • A true superstar in Alex Ovechkin, who sure looks like he’s still in or near his prime.
  • Two great centers in Kuznetsov and Backstrom.
  • A Vezina-caliber goalie in Holtby, even if he experienced rare struggles before rebounding during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • John Carlson, a deadly scorer on defense.
  • The sorely underrated shutdown pairing in Matt Niskanen (MacLellan’s best addition, and one of his first) and Dmitry Orlov.
  • Some very nice young wingers in Burakovsky (McPhee’s last first-rounder) and Jakub Vrana (MacLellan’s original first-rounder).
  • That coveted third-line center in Lars Eller, one of MacLellan’s better trades.

Following all of the losses from that “Stanley Cup hangover without the Stanley Cup,” the Capitals still boast a lot of the ingredients you’d put together to get that hangover from actually drinking from the Stanley Cup.

***

It’s amusing that the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is, in some ways, McPhee’s old baby versus his new one.

MacLellan deserves ample credit for making the Capitals even better once he was promoted from assistant GM. We’ve seen instances where a team falls out of contention as stars age and executives leave. Instead, the Capitals won two consecutive Presidents’ Trophies and then merely settled for another division title and a run to the championship round since MacLellan took over. They’ve made the playoffs every year since 2013-14, the campaign that cost McPhee his job.

Capitals – Golden Knights offers a slew of great storylines, and they’re not only limited to Marc-Andre Fleury winning after being exposed to the expansion draft or Ovechkin’s ultimate redemption.

If you want a great example of a student trying to surpass his teacher, then MacLellan’s Capitals against McPhee’s Golden Knights is about as good as it gets in the NHL.

Just don’t forget that McPhee did a lot of the work for Washington, too.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better defense?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

The Caps will go into the Stanley Cup Final will the best defenseman on either side. John Carlson has been one of the better defenders in the league throughout the 2017-18 season. He managed to pick up an impressive 68 points in 82 games during the season and he’s added 16 points in 19 games during the playoffs. Not only is he capable of leading the charge offensively, he’s also relied upon to play significant minutes (averages almost 26 minutes during the playoffs). The Golden Knights don’t have anyone like him on their roster. That’s a fact.

Michal Kempny, who was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline, has been serving as Carlson’s partner during the playoffs. Kempny hasn’t looked out of place, but playing with Carlson has helped make him look good (his overall CF% is 48.04 percent. When Carlson isn’t on the ice with him it drops to 43.84).

Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov round out the top four for the Capitals. Both players have been relatively solid for the Capitals during their run to the Stanley Cup Final. Orlov has eight points in 19 games and he averages 24:32 of ice time, while Niskanen has eight points in 19 contests and he averages 25:31 per game.

Things get a lot more interesting on the third period, which is made up of veteran Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos. The pairing has been a liability for the Caps throughout the playoffs. There’s a decent chance that they’ll be exposed by Vegas’ speed a few times during the series.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

As we mentioned before, Vegas doesn’t have a clear number one blue liner like Carlson, but they have a group of six players that seem to play well as a unit.

The Golden Knights defense is made up of Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, Deryk Engelland, Colin Miller, Luca Sbisa and Jon Merrill. None of those names really jump off the page when you look at the individually, but they’ve been good enough to help get the Golden Knights to this point.

No hockey fan considers Schmidt and McNabb as a top pairing and most people thought Deryk Engelland’s days in the NHL were done, but all three of those players have played significant roles for their team.

Before you sell the Vegas defense short, keep in mind that they have Marc-Andre Fleury behind them, which will cover up a lot of their shortcomings. Braden Holtby has been good for Washington, but Fleury has been dominant from the start of the playoffs and he hasn’t gone through a prolonged slump at any point.

Advantage: Capitals. 

The Capitals are at a disadvantage when you compare the bottom pairings of both teams, but the fact that they have the best blue liner in the series really helps shift this discussion their way. Even though Kempny is far from being a top-pairing defenseman, the fact that he plays with Carlson helps make him better. Also, the second pairing of Niskanen and Orlov plays a factor in this decision.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
Who has the better forwards?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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.

Nate Schmidt is underrated star of Golden Knights

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When it comes to the success of the Vegas Golden Knights the lion’s share of the praise is being thrown in the direction of starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the top-line of Jon Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. All of it, of course, is richly deserved. All four of them have been incredible all season and have arguably been even better in the playoffs. Other than the emergence of Karlsson — which is still kind of baffling — there was reason to believe that the quartet could make a positive impact immediately.

Fleury has been a No. 1 goalie in the league for more than a decade. His name is on the Stanley Cup three times. Everybody knew he was going to give them a chance to at least be competitive on most nights. Maybe we didn’t think he would be quite this dominant, but he has been good, is good, and will continue to be good. Likewise, pretty much everyone knew right away that the Jon Marchessault/Reilly Smith move had a chance to backfire on the Florida Panthers. Marchessault scored 30 goals last year! Smith has been a 50-point player in the NHL! It is not like their success this year is totally out of nowhere.

But perhaps the biggest actual surprise with this team has been the fact that the defense has been really, really good.

[Related: Deryk Engelland completely reinvented himself with Golden Knights]

Leading the way on that front has been former Washington Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt who has finally had an opportunity to shine as a top-pairing defender.

It’s not that Schmidt wasn’t a useful player in Washington, because he was. He probably deserved more playing time than he was getting. He showed some offensive ability, he was consistently a positive possession player, and he always seemed to make an impact when he was in the lineup and on the ice. The problem was that he was playing for a team that was winning the Presidents’ Trophy every year, had a really good defense in place, and had invested a ton of assets in the players ahead of him on the depth chart, most of whom were really productive. The argument could be made that he maybe could have (should have?) been used a little more and players like Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner a little less, but those were great Capitals teams and there’s only so much ice-time to go around.

He was a good young player that was blocked on a good team. It happens.

When it came time for the expansion draft this past June the Capitals were one of the teams that was stuck between a rock and a hard place and was going to became a victim of their own success.

While some teams (*cough* … Florida … Minnesota … St. Louis … *cough*) either paid through the nose to protect certain players, or just flat out made bizarre choices on their protected lists, there truly were some teams that were just going to lose somebody really good and there was nothing they were going to be able to do to change that.

The Capitals were one of those teams as they had no choice but to leave players like Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer unprotected, either of which would have been an excellent selection for Vegas. It is not like the players they did protect were controversial, either. Of course Braden Holtby was going to be their protected goalie. You can’t blame them for protecting John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov as their three defenders. They could not have gone with the eight skaters route and protected an additional defender because that would have left a top forward exposed.

It’s not like they protected Orpik or Taylor Chorney over Schmidt, or traded Andre Burakovsky and a first-round pick to keep Vegas from taking him.

They didn’t do anything stupid. They just accepted one player was leaving and let him go.

That player turned out to be Schmidt.

Joining a Vegas team that was starting from scratch the 26-year-old finally had a chance to do something he never could in Washington — get a real, honest look as a top-pairing defender.

He has excelled in that role.

[Conn Smythe Trophy Power Rankings: Scheifele, Marchessault make their case]

During the regular season no skater played more minutes during the regular season than Schmidt. He played close to 19 minutes per night in even-strength situations (nearly two more minutes than any other player on the team). He played on the power play. He played on the penalty kill. He recorded a very respectable 36 points from the back end (25 of them coming at even-strength, most among the team’s defenders) and was once again a positive possession player despite starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other player on the team. He played big minutes and did a ton of the heavy lifting on the blue line.

In the playoffs, his game seems to have reached yet another level.

He is taking on an even bigger workload, already has six points in the first 13 games (most among Vegas defenders), has helped Vegas to a 12-5 goal differential when he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play, and despite playing 24 minutes a night against the oppositions best players has taken just a single minor penalty.

He is doing everything in what is one of the most critical roles for a team.

Given what is going on around him with the play of Fleury and Marchessault it is understandable that his impact is taking a bit of a backseat and is getting overlooked.

Goaltending is a difference-maker, especially in the playoffs, and Fleury is playing out of his mind right now. Goal-scoring and points will always get noticed over a quiet, steady impact from a defender.

None of that should take away from just how important Schmidt has been for Vegas and how big of a role he is going to continue to play for them as one of the building blocks on their defense.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Stamkos, Hedman must shake off ugly starts for Lightning

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The emergence of players such as Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde make the Tampa Bay Lightning the sort of varied, versatile team that can be downright intimidating. Still, to some extent, the buck stops with your biggest stars.

Unfortunately for the Lightning, even-strength success hasn’t been there for big names Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman through two shockingly stark losses to the Washington Capitals to open the 2018 Eastern Conference Final. They simply need more from marquee talent if they want to get back into this series.

Now, that’s not to say that these players have accomplished nothing.

Steven struggles at evens

Stamkos’ production looks like business as usual on paper, as he’s already generated two goals and one assist; Hedman has an assist in each contest. Things get more troubling when you dig deeper, however. Consider that all five of their points have come on the power play, a notion that anonymous team officials seem all too aware of.

Now, it would be silly to be excessively worried about where a player’s points are coming from. That’s especially true during the postseason, when it’s so precious and difficult to produce.

Their failings aren’t limited to the simpler box score stats of goals and assists. Take a look at the series possession stats at Natural Stat Trick and you’ll see some downright glaring even-strength numbers for Stamkos and Hedman, along with troubling numbers for Tyler Johnson, Anton Stralman, and others.

Those rocky possession stats come even though Hedman and Stamkos have largely avoided matching up with the Capitals’ dangerous combination of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. These struggles stand as testaments to the strong play of Lars Eller and the Matt NiskanenDmitry Orlov pairing, but that’s troubling for the Bolts. Watch, for example, Orlov juking Stamkos in a big way before a Jay Beagle goal from Game 1:

It’s to the point that you wonder if Barry Trotz will try to chase similar matchups now that the Capitals get the last change during home contests in Game 3 and 4. There are all sorts of tough questions bubble under the surface for Tampa Bay. Would things only get worse if Nicklas Backstrom manages to play tonight, or at least sometime during this series? Will Andrei Vasilevskiy bounce back from a difficult start that’s clearly not all his fault?

[Lightning face plenty of questions with Game 3 looming]

Aiming for better execution

Reports indicate that the Lightning aren’t making significant personnel changes, whether that means tweaking line combinations or even going with an 11F/7D alignment. As KISS-stupid-simple as it sounds, they realize that they need to perform at a higher level, though it’s promising to see that they’re clearly pouring over tape after two rattling losses.

As Bryan Burns of the Lightning website reports, Stamkos looks at this as a real test after the Lightning breezed through their first two rounds.

“We’re going to prepare for the toughest game that we’ve played all season,” Stamkos said. “It’s gut check time. Let’s see who we really are. We haven’t really had to deal with that so far in the playoffs. Now we are. We’ll see what type of team we have.”

The East’s top team is facing quiet a challenge against a determined, inspired Metropolitan Division winner in Washington. Pulling this off would put the Lightning in select company in recent history:

While dropping these specific games puts Tampa Bay in a situation with every little room for error, these players are likely aware that, as poorly as they played, it still was just two games. They merely need to look at the other end of the ice to see a Capitals team that fought through virtually the same situation. The Caps went down 2-0 to the Blue Jackets, losing two home games in Washington, only to advance with four wins in a row.

As formidable as Washington is, especially after dispatching the Penguins, it’s also difficult to believe that Hedman, Stamkos, and other key Lightning players don’t have more in them. That said, they don’t exactly have a long time to get things back on track.

The Lightning face off against the Capitals in Washington at 8 p.m. ET tonight. You can watch Game 3 on NBCSN and also stream it here.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals vs. Lightning: PHT’s 2018 Eastern Conference Final preview

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How much of an underdog can you be when you won your division, and done so by a significant margin?

In the case of the Washington Capitals, it seems like you could be a genuine underdog. Really, they sure felt like one against the Pittsburgh Penguins, too, despite being a higher seed with home-ice advantage.

It was probably a refreshing change of pace for the Capitals to be less of a juggernaut, and that will certainly carry over against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

By going 54-23-5 with 113 standings points, the Lightning finished with the best record in the East, generating eight more than the Capitals. After missing the playoffs thanks to a bumpy, injury-ravaged 2016-17 season, the Lightning justified all of the optimism surrounding this roster … and more.

Neither the Capitals (two six-game series) nor the Lightning (two five-game series) have faced elimination so far during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. To advance to the championship round, it’s quite likely that they’ll face their greatest tests yet.

SCHEDULE

OFFENSE

Capitals: Washington has scored 43 goals so far in 12 postseason games, a slightly higher per-game rate (3.58) than Tampa Bay (3.50). They’re generating a healthy 32.8 shots on goal per contest. Via Natural Stat Trick, Washington’s generated a robust 110 high-danger chances at even-strength so far during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Through 12 games, the Capitals’ highest-scoring forwards are three players you’d expect: Alex Ovechkin (eight goals, 15 points), Evgeny Kuznetsov (14 points, seven goals including the OT tally that ended Pittsburgh’s season), and Nicklas Backstrom (10 assists, 13 points despite missing Game 6 against the Penguins).

Washington’s forward balance should return to its impressive form now that Tom Wilson‘s suspension is over and especially if Backstrom is healthy.

Lightning: Thus far, the Lightning are the scary mix of high-end offense (Nikita Kucherov leads them with 12 points after a 100-point regular season) and dangerous depth (three players with at least a point-per-game). They’re right up there with the Capitals and Golden Knights as teams averaging at least 3.5 goals each contest. They’ve scored 35 goals in 10 games.

They’ve generated 73 high-danger chances versus just 52 allowed.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. During the season, Tampa Bay scored 290 goals while Washington generated 256. The Bolts are a more versatile scoring machine than the Capitals, especially with the Caps dealing with a little more attrition.

If the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs are any indication, this battle is closer than those regular season numbers would make you think.

[Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team]

DEFENSE

Capitals: The Caps have allowed 32 goals and given up 30.2 shots per contest during the playoffs, so they’ve been winning those battles. They’ve given up as many high-danger chances (110) as they’ve generated.

John Carlson rounds out the Capitals’ group of four players who are in the double-digits in points with 11, and he’s unlikely to relent as he tries to beef up an already impressive contract year. Carlson’s also a workhorse for Washington (26:44 TOI average) along with Matt Niskanen (26:52) and Dmitry Orlov (25:31). While Orlov and Niskanen aren’t lighting up the scoreboard like Carlson, they’ve been key pieces, with Orlov and Niskanen carrying a difficult workload against Sidney Crosby. It will be fascinating to see whether Barry Trotz prefers sending out Niskanen and Orlov against the Stamkos or Point lines.

Lightning: Tampa Bay’s allowed just 25 goals in 10 games, 10 fewer than they’ve generated so far during the postseason. Makes sense since they’ve won eight of 10 games, yet it’s another reminder that the Lightning have been a buzzsaw. Again, they’ve limited dangerous chances as well as any team in the postseason.

There is quite a bit of talent on this blueline. Victor Hedman is the obvious headliner as a playoff-proven, Norris-quality performer. The Lightning eventually managed to slow down the Bruins’ terrifying top line, and a lot of that credit goes to Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman. Mikhail Sergachev continues to be a scoring threat on defense even as they ease him into the mix.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. Despite scoring 34 more goals than Washington in 2017-18, the Lightning allowed four fewer (234 to the Caps’ 238). They’re generally able to create a ton of high-danger chances while keeping such dangerous threats moderate-to-low. If you could only pick one defenseman in this series, just about anyone would choose Victor Hedman. Tampa Bay has lock-down options and depth at the position, with McDonagh looking quite good lately.

The Capitals have absorbed some painful losses on offense and defense, but they play in a strong defensive system with Trotz. They’re unlikely to give up many easy chances when Matt Niskanen is on the ice. Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson can create offense, and some depth options like Michal Kempny have really improved their balance. Washington’s defense is pretty solid; Tampa Bay’s is just better.

GOALTENDING

Capitals: After regaining the Capitals top job after Philipp Grubauer‘s early postseason struggles, Braden Holtby is looking a lot like the guy who was putting up some of the best goalie numbers over the past few years, with the added bonus of overcoming the Penguins this time around.

 So far during this postseason run, Holtby generated an 8-3-0 record and .926 save percentage. It’s funny yet very “hockey” that his most rewarding playoff run comes after his first rocky regular season in some time (34-16-4 but with a mediocre .907 save percentage).

One nice thing Washington enjoys that few teams can match is employing a quality backup. While Grubauer struggled in his audition as the top guy, his excellent regular season shouldn’t be disregarded. If something happens to Holtby, the Caps have a nice Plan B.

Lightning: Fatigue and a bumpy finish to the regular season took much of the air out of Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s Vezina campaign, but it makes sense that he managed to be a finalist.

After going 44-17-3 with a .920 save percentage and eight shutouts, Vasilevskiy’s been steady in the playoffs, raising his save percentage to .927. He’s been a strong playoff performer overall when he’s managed to get the chances, as his career mark is a lofty .923 in 22 games.

Tampa Bay’s backups are unproven at best, and a real problem at worst, so it’s probably Vasi-or-bust.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. This is extremely close. Let’s not forget, however, that Holtby was sputtering and losing his top job just a month ago. With their postseason numbers so close, Vasilevskiy’s superior regular season gives him the slight edge.

This category’s another tough call, though, for two reasons: 1) Holtby is really good and is an experienced, proficient playoff goalie and 2) Grubauer gives Washington a much better backup option if something happens.

In other words, this situation could change if Vasilevskiy stumbles or someone stumbles into him and he ends up with an injury.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Capitals: The Capitals’ 13 power-play goals leads the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and their impressive 30.9 percent success rate ranks second (and first among teams that are still in the mix). Washington’s man advantage has been stout for ages now, and Alex Ovechkin continues to be one of the NHL’s singular special teams threats from “his office.”

Washington’s PK killed just under 80 percent of its opponents chances (79.1 percent), slightly lower than the Caps’ regular season success rate of 80.3 (which was middle-of-the-pack). They’ve allowed nine power-play goals during this postseason, with five of them coming during Games 3-5 of the Penguins series.

Overall, special teams seem to be a healthy net-positive for Washington.

Lightning: Tampa Bay has as many power-play goals (10) as playoff games played so far. They’ve generated a PPG on 26.3 percent of their chances; about the only downside of this unit is that it allowed two shorthanded goals. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov’s cross-ice passes simply must be stopped, as their work is right up there with the threat of Ovechkin’s wheelhouse. The Bolts’ PP was deadly during the regular season, too.

Tampa Bay gave up eight power-play goals without generating any shorthanded tallies through 10 postseason contests, killing 74.2 percent of their penalties taken.

Generally speaking, the Lightning’s PK has been a rare area of relative weakness, as they struggled during the regular season, too.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals. These two teams feature power plays that can both take over a series. Washington’s enjoyed better all-around work this postseason, with a PK that seems more reliable.

As with every category, it’s close.

X-FACTORS

Capitals: The Capitals were able to eliminate the Penguins in Game 6 despite Nicklas Backstrom’s absence, but if their criminally underrated center isn’t good to go during this series, there could be problems. The Lightning boast Stamkos and Point, so having two quality centers would really help. At this point, Backstrom’s health is a real question. That could be a make-or-break factor in Washington’s chance to hang in this series.

Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy’s looked like he’s back in form after acknowledging fatigue during the regular season, a lot like his goalie counterpart Braden Holtby. That said, the Lightning haven’t exactly faced adversity during this run, dispatching both opponents in just five games. If Washington starts to get to Vasilevskiy, will his confidence fade?

PREDICTION

Lightning in six games. Tampa Bay has been tearing through its opponents, including an impressive (if banged-up) Bruins team. Washington possesses balance that the Bruins and Devils arguably lacked are built to give the Bolts some headaches. The Lightning have at least a little, often a lot, of everything you’d hope for in a contender; they’re likely to end the Capitals’ post-Penguins honeymoon with cruel precision.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.