Captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, returned to the ice after playing just six games in 18 this season.
With all due respect to the polarising Vegas Golden Knights, the Washington Capitals might be the biggest public darlings of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The star-crossed franchise finally got things right this spring, getting out of the second round for the first time in two decades while ending the reign of the two-time Stanley Cup champion Penguins in the process. And many are cheering for Alex Ovechkin to finally nab the Cup ring that has always eluded him, the one thing glaringly missing from an otherwise sparkling NHL resume.
However, you shouldn’t get your hopes up too high for a fairytale ending for Ovechkin and the Caps this spring. Oddsmakers aren’t loving their chances to get past Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference final, with most online sites listing the Caps as +170 underdogs in the series. (For those of you not familiar with betting lines, those odds suggest that the Caps have around a 37 per cent chance of getting past the Lightning and advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.)
Think Washington should be given a better chance than that of upsetting Tampa Bay? I don’t.
Here are three reasons why the Lightning should be big favourites over the Capitals in the Eastern final.
1. Tampa have home-ice advantage
Some people say that home ice isn’t really that important in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But it definitely matters in this series.
That’s because Tampa Bay benefits from playing at home more than any other team in the NHL.
Going into this season, the Lightning had won 44.9 per cent more games at home than on the road in the previous five years, the biggest discrepancy between home and road wins in the league. And although the difference between Tampa’s home and road record wasn’t as extreme this year, the Bolts’ 29 wins on home ice was still the second-most in the NHL.
Washington have played well on the road so far this postseason, going 3-0 in the first round against Columbus and then winning two of their three games in Pittsburgh in Round 2. But over the larger sample size of the regular season, the Caps won just 21 of their 41 road games while suffering just 13 regulation time losses in 41 home dates.
2. Tampa have tightened up their own end
Don’t look now, but the Lightning seem to have figured out the answer to the defensive woes that plagued them throughout the second half of the regular season.
So far in the playoffs, Tampa Bay have held their opponents to two or fewer goals in six of their ten games, and just one goal on four of those occasions. It’s been a stunning return to defensive form for a squad that allowed 4+ goals in a game nine times over the final six weeks of the season. Suddenly, Tampa look a lot more like the team that allowed the second-fewest goals in the East just two years ago under coach Jon Cooper.
Washington, by contrast, have allowed at least three goals in eight of their first 12 playoff games. The Caps have struggled in their own end all year, especially by their previously high standards (Washington won the Jennings Trophy last season and second in the league in goals against the previous year, but slipped to 16th in 2017-18).
Washington’s success this year is almost entirely due to their offence, and if the Caps can’t solve the improved Tampa D (especially now that Nicklas Backstrom is banged up), they’re going to be in a lot of trouble.
3. Tampa are hungrier
The Capitals finally got over the Pittsburgh hump this spring, exorcising the demons of past playoff failures against the rival Penguins to advance to their first Eastern Conference final since 1998.
“I feel great. I’ve never been in this position before,” Alex Ovechkin said after the series win over Pittsburgh. And that’s exactly why they’re vulnerable now.
Beating the Pens was like winning the Stanley Cup for the Capitals. Are they going to be as hungry now that they’re facing Tampa Bay, a team with which they don’t really have any rivalry at all? Sure, a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Final is at stake, but it’s going to be really hard for the Caps to avoid an emotional letdown in the conference final, especially early in the series.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has no shortage of motivation or hunger. The Bolts have been one of the Stanley Cup favourites since the start of the year, then lived up to the pre-season hype by blasting out of the gate with a 27-7-2 record through their first 36 games.
This is also a team that didn’t make the playoffs at all last season, following a seven-game loss to Pittsburgh in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals and a defeat at the hands of the Blackhawks in the 2015 Cup final.
Finally armed with a healthy Steven Stamkos, a second elite scorer in Nikita Kucherov and a solid supporting cast, the Lightning knows this year is their best chance to finally capture the Stanley Cup again.
Look for Tampa to be the hungrier team in this series, and don’t be surprised if they make quick work of the Capitals.