We are now officially at the halfway mark of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. Four teams remain, while the rest are sitting at home mulling over their plans for the off-season. In Round 2 it was a crop of usual suspects who rose to the occasion and who will be counted on to do the same in the conference finals.
Washington Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin
The Great Eight finally overcame the three biggest obstacles of his career: Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the semifinals. After 12 seasons in the NHL, it was lucky No. 13 that did the trick for Ovi and the Capitals.
Washington’s sniper had three goals and seven points in the six-game series, including a game-winning goal and a series-winning assist. If the Capitals want to continue the most successful run they have had since Ovechkin joined the team, they are going to need their captain to continue leading by example.
While Tampa Bay’s defence, anchored by Victor Hedman, offers a tougher challenge than Pittsburgh’s, the Lightning’s penalty kill has struggled this postseason at 74.2 percent — tied with Winnipeg for the worst among the remaining teams. That bodes well for Ovechkin and the Capitals, who have the No. 1 power play among active teams.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Brayden Point
After an abysmal minus-5 performance in Game 1 against the Boston Bruins, Brayden Point knew he had to be better. And boy, did he ever step up in a big way.
In the four other games, Tampa’s second-line centre accumulated three goals and three assists while also operating well when matched up against Boston’s imposing first line. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak racked up 30 points in Round 1 but was held to only 12 points after Game 1 against the Lightning, and that had a lot to do with Point’s improved play.
The importance of Point in the Eastern Conference final is integral. Washington’s second pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen did a fairly good job of keeping Pittsburgh’s potent alternate options in check late in the series, while the pair was also trusted during earlier chunks of the series with handling Pittsburgh’s top line pretty routinely. But Tampa’s depth is its greatest asset, and its many layers of offence begin with Point’s ability to produce.
Unreal individual effort from Brayden Point pic.twitter.com/WkX7mAO3PW
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) May 4, 2018
Vegas Golden Knights: Marc-Andre Fleury
New series, same MVP. Not only has Fleury been the Vegas Golden Knights’ best player, but he’s probably the odds-on favourite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy at this point in time.
Just like he did against the Los Angeles Kings, Fleury started and ended the series against San Jose with a shutout. What was super impressive was his ability to turn aside all 28 shots he faced on the road against a Sharks team in desperate need of a win in Game 6.
If he continues to play at this level, even a team as potent as the Jets will be hard-pressed to fill the net against “The Flower.”
— NHL Daily 365 (@NHLDaily365) May 1, 2018
Winnipeg Jets: Mark Scheifele
Having already proven he’s an elite No. 1 centre in the NHL, Mark Scheifele elevated his status even further by helping the Winnipeg Jets dethrone the Nashville Predators in the West.
Battling against Nashville’s tough defensive pairing of Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban for large portions of the series, Scheifele kept it simple against the two. He and Blake Wheeler took what little opportunities the stout defensive combo offered and were able to turn it into quality offensive production. The Jets’ alternate captain finished the series with a trio of two-goal games and 11 points, only two of which came with the man advantage. His seven road goals also set a record for the most of that kind in a single series.
After succeeding against Subban and Ekholm, the Jets’ top line will not have to match up against a duo nearly as skilled in Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb. Although Vegas’s top pair have only been on the ice for three goals against all playoffs their possession numbers leave a lot to be desired, which isn’t ideal against a team with as much size and skill as the Jets. This may allow for the team’s top line to take off against Vegas if they can break through against Gerard Gallant’s imposing defensive system.
(Game 7) pic.twitter.com/yu7M7i2INM
— NHL Daily 365 (@NHLDaily365) May 11, 2018