Picking a Conference Finals Team for the Remainder of the 2018 Playoffs

With only four teams left, there are fans of 27 others looking for a team to get behind. Each of the remaining teams that are in the Conference Finals possesses an interesting story in their run for the Stanley Cup.

Picking a Conference Finals Team for the Remainder of the 2018 Playoffs

Tampa Bay Lightning (#1 Seed Atlantic Division, 113 points)

The Tampa Bay Lightning have only lost two games in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. They trampled both the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins in five games, earning themselves one more day of rest than their opponent, the Washington Capitals.

Tampa Bay has a few key players that ignite their roster. Their captain, Steven Stamkos, has 10 points in as many games and leads an entertaining Bolts team. Nikita Kucherov is a known goal scorer in the league and provides talent that boosts his team. His six goals and six assists make him one of the team’s most dangerous players.

Brayden Point has turned into a timely goal scorer as well. In the series against Boston, Point scored three times, including the game-tying goal in Game 5.

In net, they have Andrei Vasilevskiy, a Vezina-contending goaltender. This is Vasy’s first year as a starter after Ben Bishop was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings and then signed with the Dallas Stars. He launched the Lightning into first place in the Eastern Conference and is establishing himself as an elite goaltender. His 6-foot-3, 207-pound frame allows him to take up most of the net, while his flexibility and awareness help him cover the open space.

Watching Tampa Bay is certainly entertaining. It is reminiscent of the Pittsburgh Penguins style that they displayed en route to their two consecutive Cup wins. The Bolts continuously overpower their opponents, which is why they have only needed five games to defeat their opponent ins this post-season. The Lightning play hard, show signs of being an elite hockey club, and have the depth needed to win the Cup.

If you want to get behind a team that takes care of business with none of the added drama, Tampa Bay is the team for you.

Washington Capitals (#1 Seed Metropolitan Division, 105 points)

The Caps are finally back to the Eastern Conference Final, a place they haven’t been since 1998. In that season, they beat the Buffalo Sabres in six games to go to the Stanley Cup Final. Unable to carry their success into the Final that year, Washington lost the Cup to the Detroit Red Wings in four games.

For two consecutive seasons, the Capitals lost in the second round to the Pittsburgh Penguins. This year, they finally defeated their rivals in six games. Although seeded higher, the Capitals are almost never favored to win that matchup.

After believing in Philipp Grubauer to start the playoffs in net, the Caps went back to the reliable Braden Holtby after dropping the first two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Since then, Holtby has recorded a 2.04 GAA and a .926 save percentage. While those numbers are not setting records, they have been enough to get the team to the Conference Final.

The big story is that Alex Ovechkin finally helped his team end the reign of rival Sidney Crosby and the Pens. Ovechkin’s 15 points in the playoffs has drastically helped his team get past the first two rounds.

Evgeny Kuznetsov follows closely on the stat sheet with 14 points of his own, including the game-winning overtime goal against the Pens. The Russian center scored two additional times in the Pittsburgh series and averaged around a full period of ice time each game.

The Capitals have said it’s “Our Year” just about every season. As the Presidents’ Trophy winner in 2015-16 and 2016-17, Washington failed to live up to the work they put in all season. But with the pressure of the trophy off them, the Capitals have turned into the dangerous team fans have seen all year. If defeating the two-time defending Cup champions is any indicator of success, it may truly be the Caps year.

Backing the Caps probably means that you want to see a team with a figurative monkey on their back finally remove it.

Vegas Golden Knights (#1 Seed Pacific Division, 109 points)

The Vegas Golden Knights are offering something that no major sport has ever seen. They are giving their fans a run at the Cup in their first season as an expansion team. After a dominant regular season, Vegas earned the top spot in the Pacific Division. The accomplishment is impressive because the opening night roster was predicted to land the Golden Knights in last place in the Pacific.

Vegas has also only lost two games this post-season. They first faced the Los Angeles Kings and quickly bounced them from the playoffs in sweeping fashion. Next, they eliminated the San Jose Sharks in six games, securing their spot in the Western Conference Finals.

Only surrendering 17 goals in 10 playoff games, Marc-Andre Fleury has been as solid as he was with the Pittsburgh Penguins. His 1.53 GAA and .951 save percentage ought to have the Penguins thinking that letting him go was the wrong move.

James Neal was also a surprise addition to the team as the Nashville Predators left him off the list of players they locked down. In the 2018 playoffs, Neal has three goals and four assists.

The Golden Knights are playing for a lot more than a Stanley Cup, however. At the beginning of the year, the city of Las Vegas was attacked, leaving over 500 victims wounded or killed. On March 31, the team retired the number 58 in honor of the victims who lost their lives on that horrid day.

The Golden Knights have used this season as a way to give hope back to Las Vegas after the attack. There are a few teams that know the true power of having an entire city embrace them in the wake of a tragedy. The 2013 Boston Red Sox, the 2001 New York Yankees (although they fell in Game 7 of the World Series), and the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV. The cities these teams play for all suffered through a tragedy that year, but the fans backed their hometown team all the way to the championship – no doubt an influence in each team’s success.

A Stanley Cup win for Vegas would not only be impressive for an inaugural team, but also for a city struck by tragedy.

Getting behind the Golden Knights would support a city still in need. And hopping on this bandwagon now wouldn’t bee too late either, as they have only had fans for less than one year.

Winnipeg Jets (#2 Seed Central Division, 114 points)

With the Stanley Cup being kept out of Canada since 1993, it’s safe to assume that most of the country is pulling for the Winnipeg Jets, whether they want to admit it or not.

When the Jets relocated from Atlanta in 2011, their chances of winning a Cup were not too high. In the 2014-15 season, the team qualified as the Jets for the first time. Their run was short-lived and they were swept by the Anaheim Ducks. It took a few years to regroup, but the Jets have emerged as a dominant team in the Central Division.

With a 4-1 series win over the Minnesota Wild, the Jets faced the Nashville Predators. In a stunning series, the Jets and Preds traded wins, but it was the Canada-based team that walked away with a 4-3 series win, silencing the deafening ‘Smashville’ crowd. The win also knocked out the Presidents’ Trophy winners, keeping the 2012-13 season as the last time the top team in the regular season took the Cup home.

The concept of the ‘White Out’ is a signature of Winnipeg. Almost the entirety of fans inside Bell MTS Place and on the streets outside of it are dressed in white. The fan culture creates a fun atmosphere that supports their team that has only lost two playoff games at home this year.

If you are considering rooting for the Jets, you are probably either a Canadian, want to see Canada get the Cup back, or outright hate the three remaining teams.

Conference Finals Begin

Each remaining team, except for the Lightning, have never won a Stanley Cup. The Bolts, founded in 1992, won their first and only Cup in 2004. The Washington Capitals are the oldest team out of the four remaining ones, founded in 1974.

Vegas, of course, is still in their inaugural season, while the Jets were officially founded in 1999 as the Atlanta Thrashers, but became the Jets in 2011.

With all relatively new franchises remaining in the playoffs, each team is looking for a Stanley Cup to add to or begin their total.

The Eastern Conference Final will begin Friday, May 11 at 8 p.m. in Tampa Bay.

The Western Conference Final will start on Saturday, May 12 at 7 p.m. in Winnipeg.

Main Image Credit: