For the first time in three seasons, the winner of the Eastern Conference Final will not be the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Washington Capitals made sure of that when they eliminated the Penguins, who had won the Stanley Cup the past two seasons, in the Eastern Conference Second Round to reach the conference final for the first time since 1998.
Standing in their way are the Tampa Bay Lightning, who looked dominant in their five-game second-round series win against the Boston Bruins. They will play in the Eastern Conference Final for the third time in four seasons.
[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]
Who will win?
Will it be Alex Ovechkin, who is looking to play in the Cup Final for the first time in his career, and the Capitals, who have never won the Stanley Cup? Or will Steven Stamkos and the Lightning advance to the Final for the second time in the past four seasons and give Tampa Bay a chance to win the Cup for a second time?
Video: Previewing the Capitals vs. Lightning series
We asked the NHL.com writers who have covered these two teams throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs. Here are the responses:
Tom Gulitti, staff writer
When the Capitals lost in overtime to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first two games of the Eastern Conference First Round, it appeared they might be on their way to a quick exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their reaction was the first sign that this team is different from the ones that previously failed. The Capitals shrugged it off and won four straight games to advance. They did it again after blowing a two-goal third period lead and losing 3-2 in Game 1 of the second round against the Penguins. Against a team that has tortured them throughout their history -- Pittsburgh won nine of the previous 10 series between the teams, including second-round victories in each of the past two seasons -- the Capitals won four of the next five, capping the series with 2-1 overtime win in Game 6 on Monday.
In the conference final for the first time in the Alex Ovechkin era, which began in 2005-06, and for the first time since 1998, the Capitals have the feel of a team of destiny. And they are playing with a determination and commitment defensively they'd previously lacked. It will be a big challenge to get past the Lightning, who are deeper at forward and on defense, but after dethroning the Penguins, the Capitals' belief in themselves will carry them through to the Stanley Cup Final.
Amalie Benjamin, staff writer
Nope, Tom. You're wrong. You've been blinded by watching the Capitals all year. It's the Lightning that will win the Eastern Conference Final.
It was so easy to forget how dominant the Lightning were at the start of the season, given their struggles down the stretch, and perhaps you've fallen into that trap. Their best players weren't quite so good. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy wasn't what he had been. But that all masked the fact that the Lightning are the best team in the East and have been from the very beginning. This is a team that lost in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Boston Bruins, made the necessary adjustments, got extraordinary play from its second line, all on the way to knocking out a very, very good Bruins team in five games. That says something. It says a lot.
If the Lightning get anywhere close to what they got from their top line in the Eastern Conference First Round against the New Jersey Devils, who they also beat in five games, they won't have any trouble dispatching the Capitals. Nikita Kucherov, for example, had 10 points (five goals, five assists) against the Devils, and then had two points (one goal, one assist) against the Bruins, and they still won in five.
That won't happen again.
Instead, the Lightning will ride their top line of Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and J.T. Miller all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. You can bank on it.
Tracey Myers, staff writer
Hmm, this is a tough one. I was impressed with how the Capitals slayed their personal postseason dragon (aka the Penguins) but I'm going to have to agree with Amalie here. I think the Lightning will defeat the Capitals and go to the Stanley Cup Final.
I wondered about Vasilevskiy's fatigue factor at the end of the season, and that concern doubled when the Boston Bruins scored five goals against him in Game 1 of their second-round series. But Vasilevskiy re-adjusted and it showed in the past four games.
Like the Penguins, the Lightning got much of their scoring in the last round from one line. Unlike the Penguins, the Lightning aren't feeling the effects from winning the Stanley Cup two straight years. I see the Lightning having a more balanced production this round. And if the Capitals are without forward Nicklas Backstrom, that doesn't help their situation. Washington is going to have its hands full with Tampa Bay, and I think the Lightning will prevail.
Dan Rosen, senior writer
The Capitals finally broke through into the conference final. That's nice, but the run ends here.
The Lightning are rolling. They just made the Bruins, one of the top teams in the League this season, look like a one-line, turnover-prone team.
The Lightning's four-line rotation might be the best in the League. Their forecheck is fast and aggressive. They stay on the right side of the puck and force teams into bad decisions either in the neutral zone or the defensive zone by hounding puck carriers and hitting defensemen. They have ramped up their physicality in a big way. The Lightning were credited with an average of 34.2 hits per game in the second round against the Bruins; they averaged 21.1 hits per game in the regular season. That stat, while it isn't a tell-all, makes it easy to believe coach Jon Cooper when he says his team has 100 percent buy-in right now.
I expect Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov to get on the scoresheet early in the series. I expect Brayden Point, Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman to lead the way in shutting down the Capitals' top line. I expect Andrei Vasilevskiy to again make the big saves when the Lightning need them.
Lightning in six.
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