Speaking of the unexpected, the Washington Capitals lost the first two games of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets while starting Philipp Grubauer over Braden Holtby; they made the switch, and Holtby won four straight games. Then the real shocker: For only the second time in 11 all-time series, and the first time in the Sidney Crosby era, the Capitals eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Alex Ovechkin is playing in a championship round for the first time in his career. It's great, but also a little surreal.
First line. It's no coincidence that the Capitals are in the conference final at the same time Ovechkin is having his most impactful postseason. As usual, his numbers are strong: eight goals and seven assists in 12 games. But it's when he's scored that's mattered, factoring in on three game-winning goals against the Penguins. Evgeny Kuznetsov (7-7-14) has been just as important, with the game-tying goal in Game 5 and the overtime series winner in Game 6. Tom Wilson, who was suspended three games for a head-shot against the Penguins, returns to create space and chaos.
The Lightning, meanwhile, have a similar trio in Steven Stamkos (3-7-10), Nikita Kucherov (6-6-12) and J.T. Miller (2-5-7): Two unstoppable skill guys, with a truculent (and offensively underrated) winger. They haven't been dominant at 5-on-5 in the playoffs, scoring four goals in 10 games, but they have been dangerous, with a plus-11 in shot attempts. Were this the regular season, the nod goes to Tampa. But given how these lines have played through two rounds... Advantage: Even.
Depth. The Lightning line of Brayden Point (4-6-10), Tyler Johnson (2-5-7) and Ondrej Palat (4-4-8) had a roller-coaster series against Boston. They were torched by the Patrice Bergeron line in Game 1, and then arguably outplayed them the rest of the way. They've generated nine goals at even strength. Tampa Bay goes four lines deep: The trio of Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde is a plus-31 in shot attempts. Veterans Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz, the latter of whom knows the Capitals quite well, form a solid fourth line with agitator Cedric Paquette.
Washington's second line is anchored by Nicklas Backstrom (3-10-13), who missed Game 6 vs. Pittsburgh with a hand injury and whose status is in question to start the Tampa series, and T.J. Oshie. Lars Eller (3-4-7) is the third-line center, with Jay Beagle as the fourth-line pivot. Around them are a collection of young and talented forwards like Jakub Vrana and Chandler Stephenson, and older supporting players like Alex Chiasson, Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly. This is a group that punched above its weight vs. Pittsburgh. Advantage: Lightning.
Defense. Victor Hedman is a monster, skating 26:08 per game and papering over any deficiencies from frequent partner Dan Girardi. The Lightning's regular second pairing of Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh could be a first pairing on most teams. Rookie Mikhail Sergachev and veteran Braydon Coburn round out this group.
The Capitals' John Carlson has 11 points in 12 games, and all but three have been at even strength. He's played with a few partners, but most recently with Michal Kempny. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov have been solid, with a plus-16 in shot attempts. Christian Djoos (minus-17 in shot attempts) and Brooks Orpik (minus-10) have been the weak link. Advantage: Lightning.
Goaltending. Has Andrei Vasilevskiy made you a believer? He has a .943 even-strength save percentage this postseason, and has generally been solid across the board for the Lightning. In six of their 10 games, Vasilevskiy has given up two goals or less.
Braden Holtby sat behind Grubauer for the Capitals' first two playoff games, but has been strong since regaining the crease, if not dominant. Advantage: Even.
Special teams. Two lethal power plays. The Capitals are second in the playoffs, at 30.9 percent (13-for-42), while the Lightning are fourth, at 26.3 percent (10 of 33). Oshie leads all scorers with four power-play goals, setting up in the slot for shots like Ovechkin does from the circle. Alex Killorn has three for the Lightning. The Capitals have a slight advantage on the penalty kill (79.1 percent) over the Lightning (74.2 percent) in the postseason, and were significantly better (80.3 percent) than Tampa (76.1 percent) in the regular season. Advantage: Capitals.
Health: The big concern for the Capitals is Backstrom, an essential ingredient to any recipe for success against the Lightning. Winger Andre Burakovsky, who has been out since the Columbus series, looks like he's on the way back, as coach Barry Trotz said he's "day-to-day" rather than "week-to-week" and will travel to Tampa.
The Lightning are generally healthy, which is what happens when you win your first two series in five games each. Forward Adam Erne is the only player on their injury report. Advantage: Lightning.
Coaching. Like Ovechkin, Barry Trotz finally gets a chance at coaching in a championship round after 1,524 regular-season games. Like Ovechkin, he earned it, outcoaching Mike Sullivan in the previous round with some deft lineup decisions after Wilson's suspension and Backstrom's injury. (The less said about benching Holtby vs. Columbus, the better of course.)
Jon Cooper's aggressive system makes the Lightning difficult to play against, and you can feel the enthusiasm from the players who thrive in it. Cooper, who nearly coached the Capitals before they hired Adam Oates instead, is in his third conference final series. Advantage: Lightning.