Eastern Conference finals: Game 1
Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Amalie Arena, 8 p.m. ET | TV: NBCSN
• Capitals left wing Andre Burakovsky is back in the lineup after missing the past 10 games with an “upper-body” injury, but center Nicklas Backstrom will miss a second straight game. (Read more)
• Washington’s Tom Wilson and Tampa Bay’s J.T. Miller are physical complements for their respective teams’ top lines. (Read more)
• The Lightning have five ex-New York Rangers players — and they have a long playoff history with the Capitals. (Read more)
Capitals strike first: With 12:32 remaining in the first period, Michal Kempny fired a wrist shot from the point through traffic that beat Andrei Vasilevskiy glove side to give Washington a 1-0 lead. It was Kempny’s first career playoff goal and marked the 10th time in 13 games this postseason that the Capitals have scored first. Washington is 6-3 in its previous nine such games.
Lots of action, few shots: Almost seven minutes into Game 1, the Capitals have a modest 2-0 advantage in shots. After a strong shift spent almost entirely in the Tampa Bay zone, Dmitry Orlov ripped a shot from the point that Andrei Vasilevskiy turned aside. The Lightning have a 7-6 advantage in hits, but the biggest check belongs to Brooks Orpik, who leveled Ondrej Palat as the Tampa Bay winger approached the blue line, leading to an offside.
The matchup game: As expected, Lightning coach Jon Cooper matched his shutdown line of Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson against the Capitals’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov for the opening faceoff. Led by the 22-year-old Point, Tampa Bay’s second line frustrated the Bruins’ top line centered by Patrice Bergeron for the final four games of of the Lightning’s five-game triumph in the second round. With Nicklas Backstrom out with a hand injury, the pressure will be on Washington’s second-line center Lars Ellers. The Capitals’ second line generated the game’s first shot 1:16 into the first period.
As expected, Point line starting against Kuznetsov line. Eller line will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting against Stamkos line.
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 12, 2018
The Lightning’s top threats: Tampa Bay superstars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov skated together for 778 minutes at even strength during the regular season, outscoring opponents 53 to 38. They’ve shared 111 minutes in the playoffs, outscoring opponents 4 to 1. However, the Lightning’s second line of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson has done most of the heavy lifting, skating against the opponents top line. Not only has that trio outscored the opposition (9 to 5) during this playoff run, they also have the edge in scoring chances (64 to 52), including those from the slot and the crease (23 to 15).
On the Tampa power play, it’s Miller time: The Lightning’s power play was one of the best this season, both during the regular season and playoffs, but if Washington’s penalty kill gets preoccupied with Stamkos and Kucherov, it might be J.T. Miller who becomes the hero. The former New York Ranger has 11 scoring chances in the playoffs with the man advantage, second on the team after Kucherov, with a team-high six from the high-danger areas. He’s a playmaker, too, and helps Tampa Bay generate chances from the right half wall and down low near the goal line.
Forecheck it out: Tampa Bay uses a “wide” 1-2-2 forecheck which could slow the Caps through the neutral zone. It works by having the first forward (F1) steer the opposing puck handler to one side with the two other forwards (F2 and F3) lingering in the neutral zone far apart from each other, or “wide,” to take away forward passing lanes. The Lightning’s defensemen (D1 and D2), on the other hand, keep a tight gap in the middle of the ice, looking to intercept passes.
This forecheck forced the Bruins forwards to dump the puck in the offensive zone rather than enter with control, and also forced Boston’s puck carriers into turnovers, resulting in odd-man rushes the other way. During the regular season, Boston attempted 54 percent of all even-strength shots on net and 55 percent of all scoring chances in their games, both the highest marks in the NHL. In the series against Tampa Bay they were outshot 125 to 99 and saw fewer scoring chances, 108 to 83.
The way Washington counters Tampa Bay’s 1-2-2 wide forecheck is by either taking advantage when one of the Lightning defensemen pinches and then counterattacks, puts pressure on the boards (via a drop pass to one of its forwards skating through the neutral zone) or by getting its defensemen more involved in attacking the zone. This could actually work well for Washington, since according to zone-entry data compiled by Corey Sznajder and Sean Tierny, John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov are both good at gaining entry to the offensive zone with possession.
Some still rock the red: While Tampa Bay instituted a strict dress code for fans stating they weren’t allowed to wear red in some parts of Amalie Arena during the series, there was a fair amount of red clothing scattered throughout the arena and near the glass during warmups (though most arenas allow all ticket holders close to the glass pre-game, then clear them out). The dress code affects about 10 percent of Amalie Arena seating and fans are to abide by these rules in the Lightning’s Lexus Lounge, which includes seats against the glass, or in the Chase Club luxury suites.
Backstrom out, but Caps get two top forwards back: Nicklas Backstrom will miss a second straight game with a right hand injury. Backstrom skated with some light stickhandling on Thursday morning, but he wasn’t on the ice with the team on Friday. Center Lars Eller will center a second line with wingers T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana. The Capitals will also have Tom Wilson back from suspension, and Andre Burakovsky is back in the lineup after missing the past 10 games with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury.
Top story lines
• Injuries: Center Nicklas Backstrom didn’t participate in the Capitals’ morning skate on Friday, and though Coach Barry Trotz said he’s a “game-time decision,” expect Backstrom to miss a second straight playoff game with a right hand injury. Washington won Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins without him by playing low-event, defensive-minded hockey. This time, the Capitals will at least have left wing Andre Burakovsky back in the lineup. Burakovsky has missed the past 10 games with an “upper-body” injury that required surgery, and he practiced on Washington’s third line Friday morning, a significant boost to the team’s forward depth.
“I’m just going to try to play a smart and easy game,” Burakovsky said. “I mean, you don’t get a lot of chances and you don’t get a lot of opportunity and room to do something out there, so you have to manage the game and play a simple game.”
With Backstrom out, center Lars Eller will center the Capitals’ second line with T.J. Oshie and rookie Jakub Vrana. Backstrom had 21 goals and 50 assists in the regular season, and he has three goals and 10 assists through 11 playoff games. He also plays on Washington’s top power play and kills penalties.
“If Nick can’t go or if he can, we’re going to be comfortable with our lineup,” Oshie said.
• Matchups: Expect Tampa Bay’s second line with center Brayden Point and wingers Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson to be tasked with defending Washington’s top trio with center Evgeny Kuznetsov and superstar captain Alex Ovechkin. Point’s line initially struggled with containing Boston’s Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand — Point finished Game 1 with a minus-five rating — but the group improved as the series went on, one of the reasons the Lightning dispatched the Bruins in five games. Point is also one of Tampa Bay’s top offensive players with 32 goals and 34 assists.
“The one thing they had to get out of their head was that they had to outscore the other line,” Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said. “The big thing is, don’t let them score. And then whatever happens after that happens.”
• New blood: With the Capitals beating the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, there’ll be a new victor this season. Of the final four teams left standing — Washington, Tampa Bay, Vegas and Winnipeg — only the Lightning have won a Cup.
“They’re all good stories,” Trotz said. “The same old story sometimes can get old. Once in a while a new chapter is written, and it’ll be good. This year there will be a new chapter.”
• Emotional letdown or catapult? After a 20-year drought, the Washington Capitals have finally advanced to the Eastern Conference final, a first for all but three players in the locker room. The team has said its goal remains a Stanley Cup, not just a third round. But will an emotional Game 6 overtime win against Pittsburgh on Monday and getting over the second-round hump propel Washington in Game 1 against Tampa Bay, or will it cause them to lose focus?
“It’s over,” Ovechkin said of the team’s second-round series against Pittsburgh. “Obviously, we understand right now that there are only four teams left. We have a huge opportunity to win another.”
Tom Wilson: Washington’s 24-year-old power forward missed the final three games of the Capitals’ second-round series because he was suspended for an illegal check to the head of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese. The team struggled to find a replacement for him beside Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, as he excels at using his physicality to create space and keep pucks alive for those two. Wilson has two goals and five assists through nine games, and he might have to err on the side of caution with his checking because he’s considered a “repeat offender” by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.
J.T. Miller: Since the blockbuster trade that sent Miller and defenseman Ryan McDonagh to Tampa Bay, Miller has has recorded 10 goals and eight assists while averaging 18:11 time on ice. He’s scored twice this postseason to go along with five assists, a blue-collar, top-line complement to Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, much like Wilson is for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.
“You have to have a guy that has hockey sense and skill enough to make plays with these guys and I think Miller definitely has that, and I look across the hallway and Wilson has really evolved his game to be able to make plays for those guys,” Cooper said. “So because that’s the other thing too, the other two guys are looking, they want to get the puck so somebody has to go in, get it for them and then be able to make plays to them and Miller can most definitely do that.”
Immerse yourself in the Capitals’ postseason with The Post’s coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs:
Washington’s expected lineup
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana-Lars Eller-T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky-Chandler Stephenson-Brett Connolly
Devante Smith-Pelly-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Michal Kempny-John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik-Christian Djoos
Braden Holtby (starter)
Tampa Bay’s expected lineup
J.T. Miller-Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov
Ondrej Palat-Brayden Point-Tyler Johnson
Alex Killorn-Anthony Cirelli-Yanni Gourde
Chris Kunitz-Cedric Paquette-Ryan Callahan
Victor Hedman-Dan Girardi
Ryan McDonagh-Anton Stralman
Braydon Coburn-Mikahil Sergachev
Andrei Vasilevskiy (starter)