The Southeast Division is no longer the laughing stock of the NHL. In fact, the playoff matchup between the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning guarantees that one Southeast Division team will be in the Eastern Conference Finals. The question, of course, is which team?
Washington Offense vs. Tampa Bay Defense
Washington Capitals Offense: -5.0 (19th in NHL)
Tampa Bay Lightning Defense: +5.8 GVT (12th in NHL)
Tampa Bay Lightning Goaltending: -16.3 GVT (26th in NHL)
Total: Washington Capitals, +5.5 GVT
The Capitalsonce, an offense juggernautdid not exactly set the world on fire in 2010-11. Alex Ovechkin had an off-season, as did Nicklas Backstrom. In the past, those two offensive stars were the table setters, complemented more than ably by Alexander Semin and company. This season was a little bit different, but the aforementioned three star players are no less dangerous. On the contrary, some believe their lack of offensive success this season will lead to a huge playoff run. Time will tell, but the Capitals and their 19th-ranked offense are probably better than the stats indicate. One key player to watch for: Marcus Johanssonthis youngster has great skills and is a beautiful skater.
The Lightning's defense is strongsolid, but not exactly fleet of foot. Led by the likes of Eric Brewer and Mattias Ohlund, the Bolts defense can move the puck but not as well as the Capitals' defense. Head coach Guy Boucher has to love the progression of 2009 second overall pick Victor Hedman, who has played a mean style so far this postseason. As a team, the Bolts gave up the sixth-fewest shots in the NHL this season. That will be key when facing a speedy team capable of going wide and firing quick shots off the rush.
As stated in the first round Lightning preview, the goaltending statistics for the season for this squad are entirely misleading, as Dan Ellis and Mike Smith posted very poor numbers until the team acquired Dwayne Roloson. The veteran netminder was very good in the first round and was one of the main reasons for the team's surprising comeback from being down 3-1 versus the Penguins. There may be some concern that due to his age (41) he may wear down, but the Steve Yzerman will take his chances.
Advantage: Washington Capitals
Tampa Bay Offense vs. Washington Defense
Tampa Bay Lightning Offense: 17.0 GVT (7th in NHL)
Washington Capitals Defense: 13.9 GVT (5th in NHL)
Washington Capitals Goaltending: 13.1 GVT (6th in NHL)
Total: Washington Capitals +10.0 GVT
The Bolts generated 31.8 shots per game, which was 8th overall in the NHL. The group as a whole is dangerous in many ways. Martin St. Louis provides playmaking ability, Steven Stamkos provides tremendous scoring ability, Ryan Malone and Steve Downie provide grit and Vincent Lecavalier and Simon Gagne provide speed and scoring ability. A key to the Lightning's success with Pittsburgh was matchups. Dan Bylsma wanted his top-four defense locked up against the above listed top-six forwards. As a result, Guy Boucher moved his forwards all around to create matchup issues. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how Bruce Boudreau and his coaching staff play the matchup game this round.
The Capitals have the luxury this season of depth on defense. The addition of Scott Hannan has been huge for the team's defensive game and has lessened the pressure placed upon the shoulders of youngsters John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Mike Green has looked tremendous offensively, as if he never left the lineup with concussion problems and Jeff Schultz provides a big body on the back-end.
The goaltending position was one of strength this year for the Capitals. Whether it was Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth or Braden Holtby, the Caps were in good hands between the pipes. All three netminders cannot contribute during the playoffs, but Neuvirth proved worthy of the starting spot in the first round versus the Rangers. Tampa Bay is far more dangerous up front than New York, so it should be interesting to see how Neuvirth responds to such pressure. He has AHL playoff experiencea Calder Cup title in factso any fear of big-time pressure should be qualified.
Washington Power Play versus Tampa Bay Penalty Kill
Washington Capitals Power Play: -0.2 GVT (12th in NHL)
Tampa Bay Lightning Penalty Kill: -0.7 GVT (16th in NHL)
Total: Washington Capitals, +0.5
There is little advantage here for either squad. The Capitals are loaded on the top unit but the power play was not as dominant as it could have been. The return of Mike Green is the key for this squad, as his presence opens up more seams and allows Ovechkin and Backstrom to find more space to create.
As far as Tampa's penalty kill is concerned, the Lightning was a tremendous 34 for 35 on the penalty kill in the first round. Some of that has to do with Pittsburgh's lack of offensive talent but credit is also due to this squad. A special piece of credit goes out to Wayne Fleming who is battling cancer and is the main strategist behind the team's penalty kill unit. His game plan should not be overlooked. Let's hope Fleming conquers cancer like he has conquered so many hockey obstacles.
Tampa Bay Power Play versus Washington Penalty Kill
Tampa Bay Lightning Power Play: +0.4 GVT (10th in NHL)
Washington Capitals Penalty Kill: +10.8 GVT (3rd in NHL)
Total: Tampa Bay Lightning, -10.4 GVT
The stats indicate that the Capitals have a distinct advantage here, but it is hard to believe any team has an "advantage" over a power play squad that ices Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and the likes of Gagne and Lecavalier. The Lightning has high-end talent and spaces out the ice so well. Moving Stamkos back to his off-wing on the power play helped open up ice for the Bolts skates later on in the first round, so expect that strategy to continue throughout the second round.
With the above said, nothing should be taken away from the Caps' penalty kill. Adding Hannan's shot-blocking ability was a huge help, although the uncertainty surrounding Dennis Wideman will hurt the squad immensely if he cannot return at close to 100%. Brooks Laich is the leader on this team when it comes to forwards on the penalty kill. He has great hockey sense, blocks shots and has a tremendous work ethic. The loss of David Steckel hurts in terms of faceoffs but Boyd Gordon has filled in admirably.
Advantage: Washington Capitals?
The Capitals won the season series by going 4-1-1 versus the Bolts. The season series can be deceiving in many ways, especially because the Lightning are under new leadership and added their top netminder later on in the season. Nonetheless, you can be sure Bruce Boudreau will be using the above record as a source of confidence for his squad moving into round two.
Advantage: Washington Capitals
Injuries and Intangibles
The Capitals have both Mike Knuble and Dennis Wideman on the mend. Both are hopeful to return this series but coach Boudreau is probably not counting on either. Wideman would do wonders to help the team's defense and bump John Erskine out of the lineup. Knuble provides a big veteran presence that is strong along the boards and goes to the net. Aside from that though, both teams are fairly injury-free.
In terms of intangibles, the Lightning has playoff-tested veterans in St. Louis, Lecavalier, Malone and Roloson to name a few. The Capitals have had playoff issues in the past, and without at least a trip to the third round, Bruce Boudreau's job could be in question. The star of 24/7 is going to have to be creative in order to offset the young and progressive Guy Boucher on the other bench.
Advantage: Tampa Bay Lightning
Washington Capitals total GVT: +27.0 GVT (8th in NHL)
Tampa Bay Lighting total GVT: +7.0 GVT (14th in NHL)
Total: Washington Capitals +20.0 GVT
The Lightning have already had a successful season. The Capitals, on the other hand, have Stanley Cup expectations. Not that that is enough to pick a winner and a loser, but that satisfaction outlines the respective talent levels on both teams. Tampa Bay is a year or two away from possibly taking over the reigns in the Southeast Division, so it is Washington's time to take the next step.
Capitals in six games