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Lightning experience key storyline against Capitals in conference final

Backstrom's health, ability of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov to generate offense for Washington also in spotlight

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals are in preparation mode for the Eastern Conference Final.

Game 1 is at Tampa Bay on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).


[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]


The Lightning got this far by defeating the New Jersey Devils in five games in the first round and the Boston Bruins in five games in the second round. The Capitals eliminated the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins, each in six games.

Here are three storylines to follow going into the conference final:


Experience factor

This is Tampa Bay's third conference final in the past four seasons and fourth since 2011. Washington hadn't reached the conference final since 1998.

Tampa Bay has 18 players with a combined 273 games of conference final experience, led by forward Chris Kunitz (26), who has won the Stanley Cup four times, including each of the past two seasons with the Penguins.

Defenseman Anton Stralman has played 25 conference final games, and defensemen Braydon Coburn and Victor Hedman each has played 21.

Eleven Lightning who won the 2015 conference final against the New York Rangers are expected to be in the lineup Friday. Tampa Bay's Jon Cooper has coached 14 conference final games, going 7-7.

"There is an obvious excitement about being here again, but it's kind of a different excitement," Cooper said. "It's more 'We're on a mission' excitement. It's a little different than it was three years ago with the same group. There's a confidence about them in the way we're playing, how we've arrived at where we are right now, and a lot of that has to do because they've just been there before.

"Now you get to take a step back and say, 'OK, what has worked for us before and what hasn't?' If there was a panic button in 2015, there doesn't seem to be one in 2018. It's all part of just because we've gone through that experience a few years ago."

Video: Discussing the strong postseason play from Tampa Bay

Washington has three players with a combined 28 games of conference final experience: defensemen Brooks Orpik (13) and Matt Niskanen (nine), and center Lars Eller (six).

Capitals coach Barry Trotz is fifth in regular season games coached in NHL history (1,524) but this is his first conference final in 11 times in the playoffs.

"Probably what impresses me the most is that the group hasn't been intimidated by anything," Trotz said. "We haven't been intimidated by our opponent. We haven't been intimidated by you people (the media). I think we've had a really good focus. To me, it's been a really good demeanor and mindset, and we're just focused on going to Tampa to see if we can get a Game 1 win."


Backstrom's right hand

The health of Washington center Nicklas Backstrom is a huge storyline.

Backstrom missed Game 6 of the second round against the Penguins because of an injury to his right hand. He didn't practice Wednesday, the Capitals' first workout since advancing to the conference final Monday.

All Trotz would say about Backstrom is he's day to day, he's getting the therapy he needs, and he will travel with the Capitals to Tampa Bay. He would not say if he'll practice Thursday and did not address his availability for Game 1.

Backstrom is third on the Capitals with 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in 11 playoff games. He is averaging 22:02 of ice time per game, including 4:22 on the power play and 1:03 on the penalty kill.

The Capitals need Backstrom to win or at least stay even in the matchup game and on special teams.

Forward Andre Burakovsky is day to day with an upper-body injury, an upgrade from his previous diagnosis of week to week. Burakovsky is expected to travel to Tampa Bay.

Video: CBJ@WSH, Gm5: Backstrom tallies off Bobrovsky's stick


Defending Ovechkin, Kuznetsov

Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov have 29 points (15 goals, 14 assists), including 16 at 5-on-5 (nine goals, seven assists). Ovechkin is second in shots on goal (50); Kuznetsov is tied for fourth (45).

Now they're preparing to face their toughest test.

Center Brayden Point's Lightning line (with Ondrej Palat at left wing and Tyler Johnson at the right wing) and defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman likely will be matched up against Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson, who will return from a three-game suspension in Game 1.

Video: Previewing the Capitals vs. Lightning series

Led by Point, the Lightning's five shutdown players were glued to Bruins top line forwards Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak in the second round. They didn't allow them a 5-on-5 goal after Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak scored 11 points (three goals, eight assists), including eight at 5-on-5 (three goals, five assists), in Game 1.

Point, Palat and Johnson finished plus-6 in the series; they were minus-12 in Game 1. They combined for 13 points in the series (seven goals, six assists), including seven from Point (three goals, four assists).

"The way they responded after Game 1, it was a lot of fun to watch," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "[Point] is just such a competitor. He goes out there and he does what he's asked to do. He's been an unbelievable player for us and a big reason why he's here."


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