There are five key matchups that could decide the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals, beginning with Game 1 at Amalie Arena on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
The underlying numbers can help reveal which team has the edge in each one.
[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]
Kucherov vs. Niskanen
The most important matchup in a series is commonly one team's leading scorer against the other's top shutdown defenseman. Forward Nikita Kucherov and the Lightning may hold the upper hand in this series.
Kucherov leads the Lightning with 41 shots and 12 points (six goals, six assists) in 10 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He leads the NHL with three game-winning goals, and his two empty-net goals are tied for first with Lars Eller (Capitals) and Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets).
Matt Niskanen has been taking on the top opponents for Washington with mixed results. The Capitals have allowed six goals in 41:33 of shorthanded time with Niskanen on the ice and 12 goals in 274:23 at even strength.
Video: TBL@BOS, Gm4: Kucherov blasts one-timer for PPG
Ovechkin vs. McDonagh
Forward Alex Ovechkin leads the Capitals with 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) in 12 games. His key matchup will be against Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
The Capitals have been aggressively employing Ovechkin in offensive situations, loading him up with a League-high 58:25 on the power play and a zone-start percentage of 70.0 percent at 5-on-5 that's sixth among forwards who've played at least five games. As a result, Ovechkin is second in the NHL with 50 shots on goal (Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators has 56), tied for fifth with five even-strength goals, tied for second with three power-play goals (teammate T.J. Oshie is first with four), tied for 11th with 37 hits, and leads Washington with a shot attempt differential (SAT) of plus-28.
McDonagh has a solid defense partner, Anton Stralman, and leads the Lightning with 20 blocked shots. Ovechkin's best opportunity may be when Tampa Bay is shorthanded. The Lightning have allowed seven goals in 22:10 with McDonagh on the ice, tied for second behind Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara (eight).
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm3: Ovechkin bats puck in for late lead
Kuznetsov vs. Point
Evgeny Kuznetsov, who centers Ovechkin and Tom Wilson on Washington's first line, is likely to start most of his shifts opposite Lightning center Braydon Point, who matches up evenly in most statistical categories. Kuznetsov's performance could be especially important for the Capitals because center Nicklas Backstrom missed Game 6 of the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a right hand injury and his status for Game 1 is uncertain.
Kuznetsov has taken 45 shots and has 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in 12 games; he's second on the Capitals in each category behind Ovechkin. Point has 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 10 games, tied with Steven Stamkos for second on the Lightning behind Kucherov.
There may also be a physical component to this matchup. Kuznetsov leads the Capitals with seven drawn penalties, but has taken six of his own, which ranks second to Wilson. Point has drawn 10 penalties, second to San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl (11), and has been called for four.
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Kuznetsov ends series with OT winner
Hedman vs. Carlson
Many series are decided by which team gets the best performance from its top defenseman.
Victor Hedman's credentials were established in the regular season. He was named one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy (Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings; P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators) and ranked fifth among defensemen with 63 points (17 goals, 46 assists) in 77 games. In the playoffs, he leads the Lightning with an average ice time of 26:08 per game and has six assists in 10 games.
Washington's edge could be on the power play, where Carlson ranks first with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 10 games, helping the Capitals to a 30.9 percent power-play percentage that's second to the Bruins (36.4 percent). The Lightning have allowed one goal in the 18:00 that Hedman has been on the ice shorthanded.
Video: PIT@WSH, Gm5: Carlson buries PPG from high slot
Paquette vs. Beagle
When the top lines match up evenly, the secondary lines can make the difference. In this series, the key matchup is between Lightning center Cedric Paquette and Capitals center Jay Beagle.
At 5-on-5, the Lightning have not allowed a goal in 94:41 with Paquette on the ice; they've allowed one goal in 15:52 when he's been on the ice with Tampa Bay shorthanded.
Beagle's edge is in the face-off circle, where he has won 62.3 percent, second to Predators center Mike Fisher (65.0) among those who have taken at least 100 face-offs. Paquette has won 54.5 percent, 12th in the NHL.
Video: BOS@TBL, Gm5: Paquette hits Acciari into bench
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