NHL Playoffs 2018: Updated Stanley Cup Outlook Before Conference Finals

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistMay 10, 2018

Vegas Golden Knights' Jonathan Marchessault, center, celebrates his goal with teammates William Karlsson, left, and Reilly Smith (19) during the second period of Game 6 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks Sunday, May 6, 2018, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Three-fourths of the conference final field is set in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. 

The Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning start the Eastern Conference Final on Friday, while the Vegas Golden Knights await the winner of Thursday's Game 7 between the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Final. 

Each of the three confirmed conference finalists took a different path to the third round of the playoffs, but they are all deserving of the success they have achieved. 

With the prospect of the Stanley Cup Final looming, the pressure is ratcheted up.

While taking the next step to play for the Stanley Cup is going to be the hardest, each team left standing displayed championship qualities throughout the first two rounds. 

           

No Shortage of Offensive Firepower in East Final

Each series at this point in the postseason possesses a collection of dangerous forwards, but an argument can be made that the Eastern Conference Final could contain more firepower. 

The Lightning have received contributions from 17 different players in the point department, with Nikita Kucherov leading the way with six goals and six assists.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

The balanced offense is something Tampa Bay has benefited from all season, as head coach Jon Cooper noted, per Roger Mooney of the Tampa Bay Times.

"Everybody is contributing at their own skill set and what they need to do," Cooper said. "When you have that, usually good things happen."

Tampa Bay needs the scoring variety to continue in the Eastern Conference Final as it tries to open up an advantage on home ice in Games 1 and 2.

Another factor playing in the Lightning's favor is their freshness, as they played five games in each of their first two series without straining themselves mentally. The Capitals, meanwhile, had to overcome the burden of facing the rival Pittsburgh Penguins for the third straight season.

Washington's offense is no slouch, either, as four players have more than 10 points in the postseason, with Alexander Ovechkin's 15 leading the team

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov have specialized in scoring this postseason, with the players combining for 15 goals in two series. Nicklas Backstrom has recorded 10 assists, and blueliner John Carlson is two helpers behind the Swede.

Given the offensive potential of each side, it wouldn't be a shock to see a few games in the series turn into shootouts, especially since the Capitals and Lightning have combined to concede 57 goals in the postseason.

            

Can Vegas Advance to Stanley Cup Final as Expansion Team? 

The Vegas Golden Knights achieved more than anyone thought they would by just qualifying for the playoffs through winning the Pacific Division.

Vegas caught more attention when it swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round, giving up just three goals.

Gerard Gallant's team flexed another impressive quality in the second round, as it won twice on the road against the San Jose Sharks, including the series-clinching Game 6.

No matter who they play in the Western Conference Final, the Golden Knights will start out away from home, but that doesn't scare the team. 

As strange as it might sound from a coach whose team benefits greatly from home-ice advantage, Gallant believes it isn't as big of a deal as people make it seem, per Ron Kantowski of the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

"Sure it's great to finish first in the Pacific Division but [had] we started out on the road in either of those other cities, it didn't matter. People make a big deal of home ice—and I say that [because] we appreciate our crowd, they're outstanding for us, we do a good job on home ice—but when we go on the road, like we were in San Jose ... San Jose is tough building to play, a noisy place, and I think it helps us.

John Locher/Associated Press

Vegas was one of the most successful road teams in the regular season, as it went 22-14-5 on its travels to go along with a 29-10-2 home mark.

Embracing the challenge of going on the road to face the winner of the Nashville-Winnipeg series is exactly what you want to see from a team in Vegas' position.

With a fearlessness driven by their head coach, the Golden Knights should contend in the first two games of the West final, and they could steal one before heading back to T-Mobile Arena. 

           

Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

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