We are one step away from the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, and to call the NHL conference finals matchups intriguing would be a gross understatement.
If you claim to have picked the Vegas Golden Knights to be one of the final two teams standing in the Western Conference, put your hand down because you're lying. On the other side, the Washington Capitals finally exorcised their demons, advancing past the Pittsburgh Penguins after dropping their past two playoff series to their rival.
Yet those teams and their feelgood stories will have mighty tasks against Cup favorites the Winnipeg Jets and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
See how that is reflected in the latest odds to win it all, according to OddsShark. The site has not updated the odds since Thursday's Game 7 between the Jets and Nashville Predators, which explains why Winnipeg is 5-1.
NHL Playoffs Conference Finals Schedule
Tampa Bay Lightning (53-20) vs. Washington Capitals (15-4)
Game 1: Friday, May 11 at Tampa Bay; 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 2: Sunday, May 13 at Tampa Bay; 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3: Tuesday, May 15 at Washington; 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4: Thursday, May 17 at Washington; 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
*Game 5: Saturday, May 19 at Tampa Bay; 7:15 p.m. ET (NBC)
*Game 6: Monday, May 21 at Washington; 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
*Game 7: Wednesday, May 23 at Tampa Bay; 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Winnipeg Jets (5-1) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (33-10)
Game 1: Saturday, May 12 at Winnipeg; 7 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 2: Monday, May 14 at Winnipeg; 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3: Wednesday, May 16 at Vegas; 9 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4: Friday, May 18 at Vegas; 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
*Game 5: Sunday, May 20 at Winnipeg; 3 p.m. ET (NBC)
*Game 6: Tuesday, May 22 at Vegas; 9 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
*Game 7: Thursday, May 24 at Winnipeg; 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Lightning vs. Capitals Preview
For the first time since 1998 and for the first time in Alex Ovechkin's illustrious career, the Capitals will be playing past the second round of the playoffs. While that may be something to celebrate, the challenge only becomes greater against the Lightning.
Tampa Bay was the best team in the Eastern Conference throughout the regular season, and it has flexed that muscle in the postseason by advancing this far in only 10 games. That includes four straight wins to knock off the Boston Bruins, who finished a point behind the Lightning in the standings.
This series should feel familiar to both teams, as each just finished up battling against a club that plays a similar style to its next opponent. However, the Bruins and Penguins do not provide as difficult of a matchup as the two teams about to play in the Eastern Conference Final.
For one, the Capitals and Lightning are not nearly as top-heavy as Boston and Pittsburgh. Each features excellent secondary scoring while boasting a superior defense. The latter two teams relied heavily on their top lines, as Sportsnet Stats noted, and it was not enough to sustain them through the second round:
Everyone knows about Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos as arguably the most lethal one-two scoring threat in hockey, but the Lightning can bring the heat offensively on every shift. Brayden Point is a dynamo with 10 points this postseason, while he and linemates Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat combined for 13 points against the Bruins.
Yanni Gourde and Alex Killorn combined for 111 points this season, J.T. Miller has 25 points in 29 games since being traded from the New York Rangers in February and Victor Hedman is a Norris Trophy finalist who posted 63 points this season. On the fourth line, veterans Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz provide excellent minutes in lieu of the scoring lines.
Like the Penguins, the Lightning use quick breakouts and connecting play to utilize their tremendous speed through the neutral zone. They use that strong skating to create turnovers on the forecheck, which allows them to hold possession to let their skill take over.
Washington is a bigger, more physical team than the Lightning, but so was Boston. The advantage the Capitals have over the Bruins is their strong defense, which should be able to handle Tampa Bay's forecheck more effectively. John Carlson led all NHL defenseman in scoring at 68 points this season, while Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov are swift skaters adept at moving the puck.
The Capitals are also able to send out solid scoring options after Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin in Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie, but their real advantage is in net.
Andrei Vasilevskiy is a Vezina Trophy finalist who has been great in these playoffs, with a 2.20 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. But Braden Holtby has been on another level this postseason.
Despite not starting the first two games, Holtby sports a sparkling 2.04 GAA and .926 save percentage, giving him a 2.00 GAA and .931 save percentage during his playoff career.
Holtby should be able to keep the Capitals in this series, but Washington's lack of defensive depth will be worn down by the waves of offense Tampa Bay will deploy.
Carlson, Niskanen and Orlov are all playing more than 25 minutes per game this postseason, while the slow-footed Brooks Orpik is next on defense with more than 17 minutes per night. That will not cut it over a seven-game series, so look for the Lightning to prevail.
Jets vs. Golden Knights Preview
The Golden Knights have been the story of hockey during their historic debut season as an expansion franchise. Somehow, they were able to put together a team that is deep, fast and possesses some high-end skill.
The top line of 40-goal scorer William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith has led the offense, but this team is receiving contributions up and down the lineup. Smith leads the team in postseason scoring with just 11 points, but nine players have at least five points. However, there is one overwhelming reason behind this magical postseason run.
Everybody is looking way up at Marc-Andre Fleury in the Conn Smythe Trophy race. He is playing at an elite level the NHL has not seen in quite some time. He leads all goalies with ridiculous numbers of 1.53 GAA and a .951 save percentage, and he was leading the league in saves before Game 7 between the Jets and Nashville Predators.
Simply put, he is carrying a heavy workload and doing so with rousing success, but can he keep it up?
It goes without saying that the Jets are the best team the Golden Knights will play this postseason. They boast the best top-six forward group in hockey, five defensemen they can roll out regularly and arguably the overall best goaltender in hockey this season.
Oh, and they are fresh off taking out the Presidents' Trophy winners, with Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele producing absurd numbers in one of the toughest buildings to play in, as ESPN Stats & Info and Sportsnet Stats demonstrated:
Winnipeg can bring it at a level Vegas has not seen yet. The Jets were second in the NHL at 3.33 goals per game and just put up 27 goals against the best top-four defense in hockey. The Golden Knights have leaned on Fleury while giving up 34.4 shots per game, the most of any remaining team. Minus Game 2, Vegas was outshot 100-75 by the Los Angeles Kings and 214-202 in the San Jose Sharks series.
The biggest advantage Vegas will have is rest, having not played for nearly a week when it takes the ice Saturday, while Winnipeg just finished a grueling series. This could allow the Golden Knights to jump on the Jets early to possibly steal a win in Game 1.
However, it is tough to see Vegas holding up Winnipeg over a long series, especially when relying heavily on one player. Eventually, the volume of shots and scoring chances will start to wear down Fleury and the Golden Knights defense, which should put an end to their Cinderella run. Vegas has proved doubters wrong all season, though, so don't expect it to go down without a serious fight.
Statistics are courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted.