TAMPA — Here are six matchups that could define the Tampa Bay Lightning-Washington Capitals' best-of-seven series in the Eastern Conference final, starting Friday at Amalie Arena:
How does the Lightning stop Alex Ovechkin?
With the Brayden Point line. But that is easier said than done, especially during these playoffs, when Ovechkin has a hand in three winning goals against the Penguins in the second round, including scoring the winner in Game 5. The Caps' top scorer can score from anywhere in the offensive zone. Yet Point, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson had their hands full during the Boston series in the second round with the Patrice Bergeron line, and after a shaky start in Game 1, they turned that line into a nonfactor during 5-on-5 play over the next four games.
Ovechkin's linemate Tom Wilson, suspended for the final three games against the Penguins because of an illegal hit to the head, returns for Game 1 of this series. Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov struggled somewhat without Wilson.
Between the pipes
Braden Holtby is 8-3 with a 2.04 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage in the playoffs, but he did not begin the postseason as the Caps' No. 1 goalie. That was Philipp Grubauer, who lost his job after allowing eight goals during the first two games in Round 1, both losses to the Blue Jackets. Holtby faced the Lightning once during the regular season and allowed four goals on 19 shots. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been steady for the Lightning, making tough saves when needed, like the 14 stops he made in the third period of the Game 5 series-clinching win against the Bruins. He has a .943 save percentage when the teams are at even strength.
Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette and Ondrej Palat returned to Lightning practice Thursday after missing Tuesday's practice for body maintenance. Adam Erne, out since early April with a lower-body injury, is back and almost ready, coach Jon Cooper said. So the Lightning is about as healthy as it can be this deep into the postseason. The Caps are not. Wing Andre Burakovsky, who has not played since Game 2 of the first round, is day-to-day, coach Barry Trotz said. Center Nicklas Backstrom (13 points) is questionable with a right hand injury that kept him out of Game 6 versus the Penguins.
Both teams feature potent power plays, with the Caps scoring at 30.9 percent during the first two rounds. Keep an eye on T.J. Oshie, who has four power play goals. The Lightning has scored on 26.3 percent of its power play opportunities in the playoffs. Alex Killorn leads the team with three power play goals. The Caps' penalty kill has a 79.1 percent success rate in the playoffs. The Lightning's, which was so strong in the first round, is at 74.2 percent. Avoiding the box would be in the Lightning's best interest this rounds.
The edge goes to Cooper, who is coaching in his third Eastern Conference final in four years. But Trotz helped the Caps finally beat the Penguins in the playoffs by mixing up his top line after Wilson was suspended.
Contact Roger Mooney at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @rogermooney50