It’s been 20 years of heartache since the Washington Capitals have been this close to playing in the Stanley Cup finals. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is playing Game 7 in the conference finals for the third time in four years. One is going to face the upstart Vegas Golden Knights starting Monday, and if it is to be Washington, it must excel in three key areas:
Alex Ovechkin vs. Tampa Bay’s fourth line
Lightning Coach Jon Cooper took advantage of having the last change on home ice in Game 5 to skate his fourth line of Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan against Ovechkin as much as possible. The defensive switch effectively neutered Washington’s top line. During the first four games of the series, the Lightning’s fourth line skated a total of 22.1 minutes at even strength against Ovechkin; that ballooned to 13.5 minutes in Game 5.
Known more for their grit than skill, fourth-line forwards are prized for their ability to block shots, finish checks and play defense. The Lightning’s trio did all that and more on Saturday night. Callahan got the primary assist on the first goal of the night, a quick strike by Paquette 19 seconds into the game, and scored the game-winner for Tampa Bay early in the second period. By game’s end, the line had a 2-0 advantage on the scoreboard and a 7-2 edge in scoring chances against Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson.
“You’re looking at the box score before tonight, you could say [the forwards on Callahan’s line] don’t have a lot of points, but what those guys bring to our team is inspiring,” Cooper said after the Game 5 victory. “They’re heavy, they check, they’re on the right side of pucks, and one of the luxuries we have is it doesn’t matter who we put them on against, they’re dependable, and that’s what makes them valuable.”
Back on Capitals home ice in Game 6, Coach Barry Trotz didn’t give Cooper as much leeway. Ovechkin skated just more than six minutes against Tampa Bay’s new shutdown trio, and his lined earned a 4-1 advantage in scoring chances.
Cooper could again get that matchup as much as he wants in Game 7 at Amalie Arena. Even thought that would mean top-line minutes for three players who average, as a group, nine minutes per night at even strength at the expense of his top-six forwards, the results justify the tactic.
Washington’s top pair vs. Steven Stamkos
Stamkos has four goals and six points in this series but none have come at even strength thanks to the defensive play of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen. In Game 6, Orlov and Niskanen held the Stamkos line to just one shot attempt in five-on-five play.
The team’s final tally against Washington’s top pair on Monday night was four shots on net, two scoring chances and a goal against despite half of the duo’s 14 deployments occurring in the defensive zone.
If Orlov and Niskanen can keep Stamkos off the scoresheet at even strength for one more night, Washington will have taken a huge step forward to qualifying for the Stanley Cup finals. During the 2017-18 regular season and playoffs, the Lightning’s record when Stamkos is held without an even-strength point is 28-23-2 (53 percent win rate). If he scores a point or more that improves to 35-4-2 (85 percent).
Nicklas Backstrom vs. Nikita Kucherov
Cooper split up Stamkos and Kucherov late in Game 6, and Backstrom has the full faith of the Capitals’ coaching staff to take defensive-zone draws, so it’s natural to see him and his line match up against Kucherov, who leads the Lightning in offensive-zone draws at even strength this postseason (77).
Through six games, Backstrom and Kucherov have shared 20.5 minutes of ice time at even strength and Washington has a dominating edge in these matchups. The Capitals have allowed just one goal to Kucherov and his linemates, which often include Stamkos, with none of their seven scoring chances allowed originating in the slot or crease. In fact, Backstrom’s line has outshot Kucherov’s line 17-5 and has an 8-0 advantage in high-danger chances at five on five, indicating it may only be a matter of time before Backstrom, Jakub Vrana or T.J. Oshie gets the better of Tampa Bay at even strength when these skaters share the ice.
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