Sometimes, an NHL playoff series will fail to live up to the hype. Even in the conference final, occasionally things can rapidly deteriorate for a team that had looked strong through the first two rounds. A few bad bounces, one tough goal against and a once-promising group can suddenly be booking tee times and vacations.
That hasn't been the case in 2018, though.
Both the Eastern Conference Final and Western Conference Final have been incredibly competitive. While fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets may have been hoping for sweeps for their respective squads, there has been plenty of back-and-forward puck to keep even the most passive of supporters entertained.
Latest Stanley Cup Scores
Game 4: Tampa Bay 4, Washington 2 (Series tied 2-2)
Game 3: Vegas 4, Winnipeg 2 (Vegas leads series 2-1)
Updated Odds to Win the Stanley Cup
Tampa Bay, +400
Odds according to OddsShark and are accurate as of 4:30 a.m. ET on Friday.
Updated Odds for Forthcoming Games
VGK vs WPG (Game 4 on May 18)
TBL vs WSH (Game 5 on May 19)
Tampa Bay -10,000
Marc-Andre Fleury Continues to Stifle Jets
The Jets are doing their best to not let Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury get into their heads. At this juncture, that task is proving difficult. The series is still within reach for Winnipeg, but it's going to have to do a better job of making life tough for the 33-year-old veteran if it wants to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
It was the man known as Flower who stood on his head during the third period of Game 3 on Wednesday, making 15 saves in that frame alone. But he's been Vegas' fun-loving anchor since returning from injury back in December.
To wit, Fleury had just made a monster save on the playoffs' leading goal scorer in Mark Scheifele during Game 3, and things were getting heated. The teams came together for a scrum, but that didn't rattle the netminder. Instead, he tickled Blake Wheeler.
"I'm sweating on the bench, yelling my head off, and I looked down there, and he's just having fun," is what Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant told gathered media following the contest. It's a microcosm of what Fleury brings to the ice for Vegas every night.
He's chuckling in the eye of a proverbial hurricane, simply happy to be battling for yet another Stanley Cup ring. If Fleury keeps playing like he has been, not only could the Golden Knights eliminate the Jets, but they could also defy all preseason odds and win the whole tournament.
If that happens, the former Pittsburgh Penguins standout would have to be the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy. He's been close to unbeatable during five-on-five play and has accumulated a whopping 12 goals saved above average during these playoffs, according to hockey analyst Sean Tierney:
No one else is within shouting distance of that number, and his play at even strength is causing the Jets some issues.
Washington Rebounds on the Road
You didn't think these Capitals were going to continue roll over the regular season's third-best team, did you? It has never been that easy for this organization, and that isn't going to change now. Alex Ovechkin and Co. finally disposed of the Penguins in the second round, but their reward was an Eastern Conference Final matchup against a Lightning team that accumulated 113 points in 2017-18.
The series has been strange, with the road team winning each of the first four contests, and there's no reason to assume that trend will change as things shift back to Florida for Game 5.
It took Washington too long to get to this stage of the playoffs during the Ovechkin era, and it isn't going to let this opportunity slip by without a fight. Sure, the Caps missed a huge opportunity in Game 4, but it isn't like they didn't play well.
The Capitals had 65 shot attempts in the game, more than 20 of them coming from high-danger areas. Teams tend to win when they are able to get that many quality scoring chances. That's just not the way things shook out on Thursday night.
The better squad doesn't always win in the postseason. That's hockey, but Washington knows it doesn't have to make a whole lot of changes heading into Game 5. Resiliency will be key, and it's a trait that head coach Barry Trotz believes his group has in spades. per Tom Gulitti of NHL.com:
"This group has been resilient as [heck] all year, and I don't expect anything—nothing's come easy to this team. Everybody knows that. This team's just used to that. But we're going to go to Tampa and I expect us to respond the way we have."
This isn't an unfamiliar situation for the Capitals, who blew a two-goal lead in the third period of Game 1 against the Penguins but rebounded admirably to advance. They are 7-1 on the road during these playoffs, and if they handle Game 5 the way they handled Game 4, odds are good they will be returning to Washington with the chance to put Tampa away.
Getting Nicklas Backstrom back is a huge boost, and he will put the Capitals over the top in the coming days.