Photos by Kim Klement, Christopher Hanewinckel, Charles LeClaire, Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Welcome to the third-round preview. In round one, our predictions went an impressive seven-for-eight. In round two, uh, we reflected on the success of round one. Now we're down to four teams. Who'll advance to the Stanley Cup Final? We have no idea, but we're willing to pretend that we do.
In this corner: The Washington Capitals (49-36-7, 105 points, +18 true goals differential), who knocked off the defending champion Penguins to finally advance to the conference finals for the first time in the Alexander Ovechkin era.The history books: This isn't quite uncharted territory for the Capitals, who made (and lost in) the 1998 final. But it's their first trip to the conference final in 20 years since, not to mention the first for any big four Washington team in that time span.
Eastern Conference: Capitals vs. Lightning
Injury report: Nicklas Backstrom missed the last game of the Pittsburgh series with some sort of hand injury, and we don't know when he'll be able to return. Andre Burakovsky is day to day.The big question: Now what? The Capitals have been waiting to beat the Penguins and break through to the conference final for so long that you wonder what comes next. Maybe with the monkey off their back, they're just happy to be here and can't offer much resistance against an opponent that, on paper, should be the better team. But maybe not. Maybe with the dragon slain and the pressure finally off, they play the sort of playoff hockey they've always been capable of but never seemed able to summon.One player to watch: Tom Wilson. You may as well keep an eye on him. We know the referees and the Department of Player Safety will be. All the Lightning players will, too, if they're smart. Wilson's a throwback to an earlier era, a player who still hits to hurt. Sometimes, he does it cleanly. Others, he throws those grey area hits that we all have to debate for days at a time. It caught up to him in round two, when he earned a three-game suspension for a high hit. He's eligible to return to start this series, and no doubt he'll claim that he won't change his style. But you have to figure he'll be second-guessing some opportunities to go for the big hit, if only to make sure he doesn't wind up back in the press box. The question is whether that helps or hurts his overall game.
Key number: 30.9% – The Capitals powerplay success rate through two rounds, good for second among all playoff teams. The only team higher: The Bruins, largely on the strength of going 5-for-12 against Tampa last round. Penalty killing has been one of the only weaknesses in the Lightning's game so far this postseason, so the Capitals will need to take advantage of any opportunities they can earn.And in this corner: The Tampa Bay Lightning (54-23-5, 113 points, +56), who had a surprisingly easy time with the Bruins while winning their second-round matchup in five.The history books: This is the Lightning's third trip to the conference final in the last four years, and fourth of the salary cap era. None of those trips resulted in a Stanley Cup; the Lightning last won it all in 2004.Injury report: They're just about as healthy as a team can realistically be at this point.The big question: Did we finally just see what this team can do? The Lightning were the league's best team early on, but stumbled as the season wore on. They got the job done against the overmatched Devils, but never looked especially scary. But last round's performance against a very good Boston team was different—this was a team that finally looked like a Stanley Cup favorite. Whether they're peaking at the right time or were just coasting through the second half, this looked like the Lightning's fully evolved form. Or maybe they just got hot for a few days. Let's find out.
One player to watch: Brayden Point. He had a brutal Game 1 against Boston, going -5. But from then on, he had six points and Lightning coach Jon Cooper thought he was the best player in the series. He may be right. All eyes will be Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, but if Point can stay hot then the Lightning will have two lines that will be hard to stop.Key number: 187:20 – Consecutive minutes that the Lightning held the Bruins without a 5-on-5 goal over the last four games of their series. And both of Boston's Game 2 goals came from defensemen; you have to go back 253:07 to find the Bruins' last 5-on-5 goal by a forward. That would be impressive against most teams. Against an even-strength juggernaut like the Bruins, it's borderline impossible. We already covered the Caps' edge on special teams. But given how reluctant referees have been to call penalties lately, if the Lightning can dominate 5-on-5 like that, they're unbeatable.Head-to-head: The Lightning took two of three. The two teams haven't met since February.Dominant narrative: Offensive firepower. Both teams have solid bluelines built around a big star and goaltenders who can steal games when they're on. But the focus will be on all the star power up front. We can start with Ovechkin vs. Stamkos, a pair of former first overall picks who've combined to win 9 of the last 11 goal-scoring titles. Kucherov is taking a run at Ovechkin's status as the league's biggest Russian star, while Backstrom's return would be huge. Then there's Evgeny Kuznetsov, Point, T.J. Oshie, Yanni Gourde… you get the picture.
Whenever you get this much offensive talent in the same series, we usually wind up with a bunch of dull 2-1 games. But maybe, just maybe, these two teams turn the big guns loose and we get some real fireworks. Please, hockey gods. One time.Prediction: Capitals in six.Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: We get a game that goes into overtime tied 0-0.
In this corner: The Winnipeg Jets (52-20-10, 114 points, +57), thanks to last night's Game 7 road win in Nashville.The history books: This is uncharted territory for Winnipeg, where the two versions of the Jets have never made an appearance in the conference final. They've never even won a game in round two until this year.Injury report: Dmitry Kulikov is the only name on the list, and he doesn't sound like he'll be returning this year.The big question: Can a well-rested underdog beat a team that's better but banged up? The Jets' injury report might be a short one, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of guys hurting after a long series that took its toll. On paper, Winnipeg is the better team. But the Knights will have had almost a full week off by the time this gets started. That matters at this time of year.One player to watch: Blake Wheeler. The 31-year-old captain isn't the team's best player—that's Mark Scheifele. He's not their most exciting—that's Patrik Laine. He's not the highest-paid—that's Dustin Byfuglien. He's certainly not the most important—Connor Hellebuyck, like any goaltender at this time of year, wears that crown. But Wheeler is the team's leader, its heart and soul, and (thanks to a surprising career year) its leading scorer. When he's going, the top line is just about unstoppable and the Jets win. He had four multi-point games in the Predators series and the Jets won them all. If he keeps that up in this series, it may not last long.
Western Conference: Winnipeg Jets vs. Golden Knights
Key number: .444 – The Jets' regular season win percentage in games they trailed at the first intermission, the best mark in the NHL. By comparison, the Knights' winning percentage when they lead after one was .750, which placed them right in the middle of the league. The Knights have had some quick starts in the playoffs, but the Jets just aren't a team you can put away early.And in this corner: The Vegas Golden Knights (51-24-7, 109 points, +43), who swept the Kings and then knocked out the Sharks in six.Injury report: The pride of every other GM in the league is listed as day to day. Otherwise, the Knights might be missing William Carrier and that's about it.The big question: How? Why? Does anything make sense anymore? Has parity gone too far? Were the other 30 NHL teams always just incompetent and we didn't realize it until just now? Are we all just living in a simulation where they're trying to see how ridiculous a pro sports storyline can be before we stop buying it? Are there any objective rules to how things work in the universe? Isn't this a lot more than one question? Does it matter? Does anything matter? WHY WOULD ANYTHING MATTER?One player to watch: Marc-Andre Fleury. It's the obvious pick, but I'm flailing around for something solid to grasp onto. Fleury has been amazing through two rounds, and has already lapped the field in terms of Conn Smythe odds. He's been so good, in fact, that you could be forgiven for forgetting that there was a time when he was considered a terrible playoff goaltender—and rightly so. He was awful in four straight postseasons from 2010 to 2013, and he lost his starting job to Matt Murray in both of the Penguins' last two Cup runs. Now he's 33 and giving off a "Dominik Hasek at the 1998 Olympics" vibe. Nothing matters.
Key number: 34.4 – Shots allowed per game by the Knights in this year's playoffs, easily the most among the remaining teams. That's somewhat misleading, because they've played a lot of overtime. But it still drives home how much this team is relying on Fleury right now. If he goes cold, or even just goes back to hot instead of supernova, they could be in trouble unless the defense can tighten up in front of him.Head-to-head: The Knights won two of three. The teams haven't met since Feb. 1.Dominant narrative: The flavor of the month vs. the Canadian old school. Every year around this time, somebody calls on Canadian fans to unite behind the country's last remaining team, and every year those fans tell that person to get bent. When it comes to hockey, we don't do unity up here. But this year could be different. The Jets were already the most likable bandwagon team in the league, and now their path to bringing the Cup home is blocked by… these guys? With their goofy pregame shows and weird gloves and laser shows? This is playoff hockey—it's not supposed to be fun. You have to earn your shot at the Stanley Cup, and Winnipeg has four decades of scars to prove it.Prediction: Jets in five.Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Fleury gets pulled in Game 1.