For the fourth consecutive season, the Eastern Conference final will come down to one game, winner take all. So, with the pressure on, who steps up to send either the Lightning or the Capitals to the Stanley Cup final?
In 2015, Ben Bishop and Alex Killorn were the difference makers for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The very next campaign, Bryan Rust became a household name in Pittsburgh. Then, in 2017, Chris Kunitz made his mark twice, the second goal an overtime marker that helped propel the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups. And now, Wednesday night in Tampa Bay, at least one more name will be added to the list of Game 7 heroes, particularly those who’ve stepped up in the Eastern Conference final.
To be sure, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final is well-trodden territory. Matter of fact, the Game 7 meeting between the Lightning and Washington Capitals Wednesday night will mark the fourth consecutive season in which the East final has needed a series-deciding seventh game and it will be the sixth time in the post-lockout era that the Eastern conference championship series has gone the distance. And the upcoming Game 7, like all others before it, will eventually be decided and defined by one play by one player who finds the perfect moment to deliver.
So, as we prepare to find out who will be meeting the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup final, here’s a look at three players from each of the Lightning and Capitals who could step up and leave a lasting mark in the season-deciding contest:
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
All right, so he’s the most obvious player on this list and maybe any list of players who can make a difference in a one-game affair of this magnitude. Ovechkin’s impact in this series, though, has been exceptional. Through six games, he’s a point per game player with three goals and six points, and he’s also thrown the body, blocked shots and fired pucks on net seemingly at will while averaging upwards of 20 minutes per outing.
We shouldn’t overlook Ovechkin’s history, either. In the post-lockout era, Ovechkin is tied for ninth in Game 7 points with six, he’s second in ice time with more than 200 minutes and no player has made netminders make more stops. Ovechkin has 43 shots in Game 7s throughout his career. He’s all over the ice when the Capitals’ season is on the line, and Wednesday should be no different.
Ryan McDonagh, Tampa Bay Lightning
Ovechkin is going to be a fixture of the Capitals’ attack in Game 7. That much we know. Whether or not he finds the scoresheet, though, is likely going to be up to the defenders who have the unenviable task of trying to slow down a fired-up Ovechkin. Luckily, the Lightning have a sound second pairing, led by McDonagh, and the former Rangers captain is awfully familiar with Ovechkin and the Capitals from his time spent in New York.
It’s shown, too, as McDonagh has done a fairly good job of keeping Ovechkin’s line in check at 5-on-5. In fact, the Lightning are even in shot attempts and leading in high-danger scoring chances and goals for when McDonagh has been out against Ovechkin. The blueliner was Tampa Bays big deadline acquisition for a reason, and now is his chance to prove he’s worth every penny spent to bring him aboard.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals
Again, maybe Kuznetsov is an obvious choice, but how do you leave him off the list given the way he’s played against the Lightning? Kuznetsov has a point in every single contest of this series and scored in four straight games before having that streak snapped in Game 6. Even beyond pure points – and he is the Capitals’ leader in the conference final – it could be argued that Kuznetsov has been Washington’s biggest offensive threat. He has more shots than any other Capital, 10 scoring chances, a few rush opportunities and he’s been making things happen at 5-on-5.
True, Kuznetsov doesn’t have near the Game 7 history of Ovechkin. But Kuznetsov did score the Game 7 game-winner against the New York Islanders back in 2015 and he showed up in a massive game in the second round, scoring the overtime winner to finally put Washington past the rival Penguins. He can cement himself as a big-game player with a solid performance.
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning
No Steven Stamkos and no Nikita Kucherov on this list. Instead, they’ve been replaced by Brayden Point, who has continued to have a tremendous post-season and sits only one point back of the team playoff scoring lead with seven goals and 16 points in 16 games. Make no mistake, either, that Lightning coach Jon Cooper is seeing the same things in Point that the rest of the hockey world has this spring. There’s a reason why Point is seeing the highest average ice time of any Tampa Bay forward.
He’s earned that ice time, too, at both ends of the ice. Point has led the change for the Lightning in this series with three goals and six points. He’s also top three in shot generation, scoring chances and high-danger chances at five-a-side. Point has made life a challenge for Capitals defensemen John Carlson and Michal Kempny and if that continues in Game 7, the Lightning could very well be moving on.
Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
Last season, Holtby led the entire NHL in shutouts by posting nine clean sheets across 63 games in the Capitals crease. And Holtby’s play was stellar enough that he finished the campaign as the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy, this coming the year after he had captured the award for the first time.
His season this time around, of course, was nowhere near as great, and that led Holtby to start the season as a second-stringer. However, he took over the reins just two games into the post-season and has since guided the Capitals to the conference final. And over this run, signs of the “old” Holtby are starting to shine through.
Case in point, with the Capitals’ campaign on the line in Game 6, Holtby posted a 24-save shutout and brought his post-season save percentage up to .919, a full dozen points better than his regular season performance. Holtby’s play is going to be all important in Game 7, too, particularly given Washington has been excellent at limiting opportunities. Holtby has faced more than 24 shots just once in the entire series, and if the Capitals defense continues to do its job that well, Holtby has to reward them with top-flight play.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
The big story — or one of them, at least — following Tampa Bay’s back-to-back home losses to start the conference final was Vasilevskiy’s play. He had allowed 10 goals against on 62 shots, had a sub-.850 SP and it appeared as though his poor performance would be what ultimately sunk the Lightning if he couldn’t get it together. But get it together he has.
Over the past four games, Vasilevskiy has been outstanding, stopping 131 of the 139 shots that have come his way. That’s good for a .942 SP, and despite the fact the Capitals have sent at least 30 shots his way in each of the past four outings, Vasilevskiy hasn’t surrendered more than two goals in any of those contests. So, as the Lightning head towards a one-off, win-or-go-home contest, Vasilevskiy’s play could end up being the very thing that saves them after early appearances were that his inability to stymie the Capitals would result in a disappointing finish to a promising season in Tampa Bay. No one doubts Washington’s ability to come out flying, but one more big game out of Vasilevskiy could erase all memories of his shaky start to the series.
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