2018 Stanley Cup Conference Finals Preview

 

Vegas vs. Winnipeg

Golden Knights Jets Hockey

John Woods/The Canadian Press via AP

First up, we have two teams that weren’t even in the postseason last year. In fact, Vegas didn’t even have a roster right around this time last year. Yet here we are watching two teams hitting foreign territory here. Sometimes, when you watch two groups of players never experience such a high level of pressure before, it usually means that they will play a looser style of hockey because they have nothing to lose.

Goodness can we please have that happen, especially for a team like Winnipeg who have just been so much fun to watch all postseason. As I implied in my Game 7 preview yesterday, it was amazing how much the Jets fought fire with fire against Nashville and just used that to kick them to the curve in their own building. Plenty of that had to do with Pekka Rinne turning into a pumpkin once again, but plenty of it continues to be the fact that they have three legitimate scoring lines, plus a fourth line that can shut down anyone when counted upon. Even if they have had to go through such a grueling series against the former Stanley Cup finalists, I just feel like their strategic ethos will be something that will give Vegas their hardest test they have dealt with all postseason.

Yes, Marc Andre-Fleury has been so good, you might as well give him the Vezina Trophy already. And their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson has been absolutely brilliant all season long. But this is now time to wonder if Vegas’ defensemen are able to be up to the task against Winnipeg’s attack. Let’s be frank here. The Pacific Division is a disgrace and anyone being a part of the front offices of any non-Vegas team should be ashamed of themselves. Los Angeles was always just too old and too slow to make any long postseason run and the same applied to San Jose if they never had to play an even worse Anaheim team. Now Vegas will get to face a real Stanley Cup contender with real elite NHL players across the board.

Now I’m not saying Vegas doesn’t have what it takes to handle Winnipeg. After all, they won two of the three outings in the regular season. But with a combined 12-11 scoreline during those three games, I expect a more helter-skelter series than fans imagine. On that note, it will be the most crucial in Nate Schmidt’s and Brayden McNabb’s career to go toe-to-toe and dominate the puck possession battle against any line head coach Paul Maurice could through at them. When together, the top pair has only been able to generate 49.6% puck possession in their almost 159 even strength minutes together.

However, Vegas remaining two defense pairs have been absolutely brilliant. While the Jon Merrill-Colin Miller pair have had 57.4% puck possession in 102 even strength minutes, the Deryk Engelland-Shea Theodore pair has done much better to the tune of 58.3% puck possession in 148 even strength minutes. They are the true reason why the James Neal-David Perron-Erik Haula line has been so productive all season and why they look like they can be able to handle whatever Winnipeg can throw out them.

One thing to watch out for is that despite not performing so well on the power play so far (just seven goals in 41 tries), their 109.4 shot attempts per hour is an indicator that good times are ahead. Add in Winnipeg’s porous 126.2 attempts per hour on the penalty kill this postseason and the Golden Knights could exploit something on special teams. However, this is with the assumption that Connor Hellebuyck can go toe-to-toe with the veteran Fleury.

While Hellebuyck has every right to be a Vezina Trophy finalist, he hasn’t had this type of production and this type of a workload before. Meanwhile, as stated before, Marc-Andre Fleury has not faced anybody elite in the postseason before. How Patrick Laine, Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler and the rest can keep their mental fortitude in check while staring at possible shutouts will be key for them to win this series. At their best, they can outskill any team in the NHL. But it’s not like Vegas can go toe-to-toe offensively either.

While Fleury has deservedly grabbed all the headlines for the Golden Knights. Don’t sleep on the fact that this team generated 272 goals in the regular season: good for fourth best in the entire NHL. Along with that, this team is second only to….Winnipeg…with their 63.7 score-adjusted shot attempts per hour generated at even strength. This is a much more mobile Vegas team that has been given credited for. We just haven’t seen it blossom to full effect just yet.

So while Winnipeg-Nashville was so much fun, it’s not like we’re going to see the intensity lessen anytime soon with this matchup. Add the fact that the two fanbases and their lack of sports-curse baggage will be absolutely rocking and this has the chance to be the most special series of the postseason. No matter what happens, it will be a story written in folklore to whoever makes it to their first Stanley Cup Final.

Jets in Seven

Tampa Bay vs. Washington

Alex Killorn, Nicklas Backstrom

Nick Wass/AP

If you were to tell me at the beginning of the season that Washington would make the Conference Finals, I might have never wanted to speak to you again for how sick of a joke you just told me. Instead, here they are, in all their glory. I just can’t state enough how terrible this roster is, and yet head coach Barry Trotz [deep breath in-deep breath out] worked miracles to get them this far.

Plain and simple, Washington should have hid their heads like turtles in Game 6, prayed for damage limitation and if it just so happened that they lost, they’ll regroup for Game 7. Instead, the Capitals could not have played a better game plan against a Penguins side that just looked like they ran out of steam, especially when they played at home. Either way, their reserves in Nathan Walker, Shane Gersich and Travis Boyd were absolutely brilliant. In fact, they were so brilliant that I just don’t know how you healthy scratch all of them in the conference finals. But because it’s Barry Trotz, you can count on him making poor roster choices.

But in the meantime, there’s a real sense that Washington has found the perfect game plan with the roster they have. Their attack has been really good when it’s needed to be and their defensive game plan has worked when the right players are in place. It’s quite clear that any line with Nicklas Backstrom or Lars Eller as the centerman has been used for shutdown situations while Washington’s top line has been free to roam and score.

But with home-ice advantage, it will be interesting how Tampa will take advantage of last change and this is where they’ll have the definitive edge in power vs power situations. In fact, Tampa could also get away with having the Ondrej Palat-Tyler Johnson-Brayden Point second line that has been so potent all season on the second line while Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos can go to work on a defensively-challenged Capitals top line.

The point has basically stood that Tampa is significantly deeper than Washington and that’s just not going to go away unless a historic amount of injuries rain down upon them. Even on the fourth line, an aging Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz surely know what it takes to keep raining on Washington’s parade. In short, Trotz is going to have to find the best bottom six skaters to compete with the Lightning, otherwise their role players will absolutely tear them apart. On the other hand, Trotz could also shorten his bench, but I just don’t know how feasible that will be, especially after enduring five overtime games this postseason.

If there is a weakness at evens on this Tampa team, it could be the depth and utilization of their defensemen. While Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh have clearly been their most utilized defensemen, the gap in talent and usage between the trio and the rest of the defense-corps has been evident all season. Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn just don’t have the legs to be counted upon in high-pressure situations, but as it’s been said time and again on this blog, I seriously have no idea why Mikhail Sergachev is not getting more playing time.

In the regular season, Russia’s and Tampa’s Nate Schmidt led all Lightning defensemen with 54.3% puck possession while only averaging 13:29 of even strength ice time per game. On the other hand, head coaches looooooooooooove to stare at giveaways and use that as an excuse to punish puck moving defensemen. It’s why fans still don’t think Erik Karlsson is good enough. It’s why Caps fans don’t completely forgive Mike Green’s mistakes. It’s why Dmitri Orlov and Schmidt have been unforgivably healthy scratched. Just don’t forget to look at touches with the puck to justify your explanation why the turnovers happen in the first place. Surely enough, even with a plus-minus of +11 and being ninth on the team in scoring with 40 points, head coach Jon Cooper thought it was best for Sergachev to get the least playing time among Tampa’s most commonly used defensemen because of his 60 giveaways: second highest only to Hedman’s 67 while playing four minutes more at even strength than Sergachev per game.

Now you would like to think opponents are taking advantage of this stupidity. Instead, both Girardi and Coburn are getting well over 50% puck possession these playoffs and that all stems to the hard work their forward playing teammates are doing. In particular, Tampa’s third line of Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde and Anthony Cirelli have been immense on the forecheck and the trio have each generated over 54% puck possession in the playoffs.

One major weakness that Washington genuinely can exploit, however, has been Tampa’s penalty kill. While it was only able to have 76.0% during the regular season, that number has dwindled to a 23 kill out of 31 opportunities (74.2% efficiency) in the postseason and it has given up a shocking 126.8 shot attempts per hour. Surprisingly, Washington’s power play has been able to get what it wants in both of these rounds by scoring 13 times out of 42 attempts (31.0% efficiency) while generating a solid 117.0 shot attempts per hour. Meanwhile, Washington was absolutely immense at eventually limiting Pittsburgh time and space to get quality chances towards Braden Holtby that they have gone from being such an unmitigated disaster after the first two games against Columbus to limiting opponents to less than 100 shot attempts per hour throughout the postseason. If that doesn’t give Lane Lambert an NHL head coaching job anytime soon, I don’t know what will.

Finally, what if I were to tell you that I trust Braden Holtby more so than I trust Andrei Vasilevskiy. While the latter has had experience in Conference Finals play, Holtby has built a six-year track record of strong postseason play on the whole, while also handling a large workload that an average NHL starting goaltender would have. If the Washington netminder can hold a distinct advantage over his younger counterpart, the Capitals genuinely have a shot of keeping this series much closer than it should be. Otherwise, as much as I love my Capitals and what they have done these first two rounds, Tampa is just so good and teams like that are horrifyingly difficult to deny advancing to the Stanley Cup Final when they are at their best.

Lightning in Six

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