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Best matchup for the Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final

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Both the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning are still gunning for the second spot in the Stanley Cup Final. Which team would be the better matchup for Vegas?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Washington Capitals - Game Six
Anthony Cirelli #71 of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dmitry Orlov #9 of the Washington Capitals
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Now that the Vegas Golden Knights are headed to the Stanley Cup Final, it’s time to consider which of the other two teams standing — the Washington Capitals or the Tampa Bay Lightning — would be the friendlier matchup.

If the victories over the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets prove anything, it’s that the Golden Knights can beat any type of team. They beat a bruising defensive team in LA, an experienced, deep team in San Jose and a fast, physical roster in Winnipeg.

Though they’ve shown they can beat anyone at anytime, the Golden Knights certainly matchup better against one of the two remaining teams. So which one is it? Which should Vegas fans root for during Game 7, Tampa or Washington?

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning are a team on the rise again after missing the playoffs last season and making the Stanley Cup Final two years before that. They won the Atlantic Division by a very close margin, coming down to the last game of the season.

This is a team that certainly doesn’t lack talent. Nikita Kucherov scored 39 goals and 61 assists for 100 points in the regular season. His center Steven Stamkos had a fantastic year in his own right, scoring 27 goals for 86 points. They also got massive contributions from Brayden Point (32-34—66) and Yanni Gourde (25-39—64) all while having a Norris-nominated defenseman in Victor Hedman on the back end (17-46—63).

Here’s how they matched up against Vegas in the regular season.

Versus Vegas

In two games against the Lightning in the regular season, the Golden Knights scored eight goals to Tampa’s four (4-1 in favor of Vegas at 5-on-5). The Lightning scored two power-play goals, and the Golden Knights scored four.

The possession metrics heavily favor the Golden Knights. Vegas had 55.39 percent of the Corsi, 52.25 percent of the shots and 64.29 percent of the high-danger opportunities at 5-on-5. That means the Golden Knights could continue to drive the puck well against the Lightning, which would obviously sway the series.

The Golden Knights also went 2-0-0 against the Lightning in the regular season. For reference, they were 2-1-0 against the Jets, 2-1-1 against the Kings, and 3-0-1 against the Sharks. Winning the regular season series has been a good signifier of success in the playoffs.

Lightning’s Strengths

The first line of Stamkos, Kucherov and Ondrej Palat is a good one. They have 49.33 percent of the Corsi, 45 percent of the shots, 53.85 percent of the high-danger opportunities and have outscored opponents 2-1 at even strength. The line becomes better with the addition of Palat, and the Stamkos-Kucherov connection without him is worse.

Then there’s the power play. The Lightning have the second-best power play remaining in the playoffs (after only the Capitals), and have connected on 29.1 percent of their opportunities. Tampa has 16 goals on 55 opportunities so far.

The Lightning also have the best faceoff percentage among teams that made the third round. Winning at the dot against Tampa will be hard, as they have three players excellent at that aspect of the game — Cedric Paquette has won 54.9 percent of his draws, Tyler Johnson 54.1 percent and Stamkos 52.9.

The Lightning’s number one defensive pairing, Hedman and Dan Girardi, have also done an excellent job defensively. They have not allowed a high-danger goal, and have 48.45 percent of the Corsi, 48.84 percent of the shots, 53.49 percent of the high-danger opportunities and have outscored the opponent 5-4.

There’s also the third pairing of Mikhail Sergachev and Braydon Coburn that does a good bit of damage offensively (for goals for, zero against). They have 63.04 percent of the Corsi, 63.92 percent of the shots and 65.52 percent of the high-danger opportunities. They’ve taken 74.63 percent of their faceoffs in the offensive zone, however, so take it with a large pinch of salt.

Finally, these three series have shown how important it is to have four lines against the Golden Knights. Luckily for the Lightning, their best two lines in terms of possession are their third and fourth.

The third line, made up of Alex Killorn, J.T. Miller, and Anthony Cirelli, has 56.36 percent of the Corsi, 71.43 percent of the high-danger opportunities, and have not been scored on in 33 minutes of 5-on-5 time. They also haven’t scored and have been outshot. Still, though, they’re doing heavy damage.

Same goes for the fourth line of Chris Kunitz, Paquette and Ryan Callahan. They have 57.98 percent Corsi, 61.73 percent shots, 75 percent high danger opportunities and a .968 on-ice save percentage at 5-on-5. They’ve allowed just one goal and have been on the ice for three, and the high-danger goal battle is 2-0.

Tampa’s Weaknesses

The most obvious weakness of the Lightning is their penalty kill. They’ve killed just 73.9 percent of the penalties they’ve taken, and have given up 12 goals on 46 opportunities. They have the worst penalty kill of teams that made the third round. They’re just not good in that area and had the fourth-worst penalty kill in the regular season.

The second pairing has also been an issue. While they have two solid defensemen on that pairing in Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh, that pairing has been shelled all postseason. They have just 45.82 percent of the Corsi, 41.36 percent of the shots, 48.57 percent of the high-danger opportunities and have given up eight goals at 5-on-5. That pairing should be used against good lines at tough times, so for it to get caved in at times is not a good look.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has also been a problem at times. While he has a .934 save percentage at even strength, number 12 in these playoffs, he has a .878 save percentage on the penalty kill. That’s number 13 in the postseason. He has not been a top 10 goaltender, and it gets worse when down a man.

Washington Capitals

The Capitals finally overcame their demons and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins to advance to the third round. They’ve fought to three wins in the Eastern Conference Final so far, and have been supported by great goal scoring and by good goaltending. They’ve gained a ton of momentum from their second-round success, but can that translate all the way to the Stanley Cup Final?

The Capitals have Alex Ovechkin, perhaps the greatest active goal scorer in the NHL. They also have a good trio behind him, including Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson. Those three will play heavy minutes for the rest of the playoffs.

It’s no wonder that this team won the Metropolitan Division for the third straight year in the regular season and the first time in the playoffs.

Versus Vegas

The Golden Knights also faced the Capitals twice this season and won both games by a combined score of 7-3. Marc-Andre Fleury got one of his first shutouts of the season in the Dec. 23 game against the Capitals.

At 5-on-5, the Golden Knights again drove possession. They had 54.64 percent of the Corsi, 56.04 percent of the shots and 66.67 percent of the high-danger opportunities. Vegas also outscored Washington 6-3 at even strength and it was 3-1 in terms of high-danger goals. The Golden Knights should continue to outclass the Capitals in terms of possession if Washington is the opponent.

Finally, the Golden Knights scored one goal on the power play and only allowed one high-danger chance on the penalty kill against the Capitals. This is a very favorable matchup for Vegas.

Washington Strength’s

Ovechkin has shown up all season, but his postseason has been extra special. He’s collected 11 goals and 10 assist for 21 points, second most points on the team. That’s only behind his center Kuznetsov, who has 11-12—23. When your winger is Ovechkin, points will not be hard to come by.

The Capitals have also gotten key contributions from the rest of their quintet, including 7-8—15 from T.J. Oshie and 3-12—15 from both Carlson and Backstrom. The Capitals’ ability to put those five on three different lines and a defensive pairing will (and has) lead to a lot of mismatches.

The Capitals also have the most power-play goals in the postseason and have converted on 29.8 percent of their opportunities, the best percentage of the four Conference finalists. They also have a shorthanded goal.

Their second defensive pairing has also been excellent. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov have taken the brunt of the defensive workload, playing 334:48 of 5-on-5 time, and have taken 128 defensive zone draws versus 98 offensive.

They have 53.54 percent Corsi, 56.25 percent shot share and 58.12 percent high-danger share despite that. They have been scored on 15 times, but have been on the ice for 17. They have given up eight high-danger goals against six for, however.

Washington has also been able to get contributions from up and down their lineup, including four goals apiece from Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly and five from Lars Eller. The bottom six, while changing substantially over the playoffs, is made up of a lot of talented players. When healthy, the Capitals have a lot more depth than at first glance.

Andre Burakovsky hasn’t scored this postseason, but like Nikolaj Ehlers, who finished without a goal, Burakovsky brings a lot of speed and a lot of danger for match-ups. He has 53.13 percent Corsi, 56.45 percent shot share and 61.11 percent high-danger share in 62:15 of 5-on-5 time.

The Capitals’ depth is something to watch going forward and would be a challenge for the Golden Knights.

Capitals’ Weaknesses

The Capitals have only killed 75 percent of their penalties. That’s not great, and they have given up the most power plays. A pairing of bad discipline and bad penalty killing does not make a winning combination.

The Capitals also have a bad third pairing that takes sheltered minutes in Christian Djoos and Brooks Orpik, and they have been hurt for much of the playoffs.

Washington’s fourth line also hasn’t been terrific. Jay Beagle, Chandler Stephenson and Smith-Pelly only had 20.83 percent of the Corsi, 28.57 percent of the shots and 20 percent of the high-danger opportunities at 5-on-5. While they did score a goal, the possession metrics aren’t great in the long term.

Finally, Braden Holtby has the worst save percentage of goaltenders who made the third round with a .919. He has a 2.16 goals against average, but only one shutout (which came in Game 6 against Tampa Bay) and he has two penalty minutes. Holtby has allowed 27 goals since the series against Columbus and has had progressively worse save percentages since the first round. He fell from a .932 to a .921 to a .903 against Tampa. If that pattern continues, Vegas could have good fortune.

So, Who’s the Better Match-Up

They’re both excellent matchups for Vegas, in that Vegas has beaten both of them twice during the regular season and should certainly be capable of doing so again. The same strategy applies to both — play disciplined hockey, keep them at 5-on-5 and roll four lines.

While Ovechkin remains an intimidating presence, so are Kucherov and Stamkos. Besides, Vegas has had practice shutting down excellent goal scorers — Patrik Laine only got on the board on the power play. If Nate Schmidt or Shea Theodore get put against Ovechkin or Oshie and shut them down the way Theodore did Laine, well, that would be a quick series.

Washington would be the better matchup in the “Vegas lifting the Cup” sort of way. Tampa Bay would likely be the more entertaining series. Either way, the Golden Knights appear to have the early advantage.