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2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs – Which player needs MVP-caliber performance to help Tampa Bay Lightning win the Eastern Conference Final?

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The Tampa Bay Lightning have been outclassed by the Washington Capitals, losing the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final — and at home, too.

In order for the Lightning to come back and win the series against the Capitals, ______ will have to step up with a Conn Smythe-caliber performance.

Emily Kaplan: After Nikita Kucherov went pointless in the first three games of the series against the Boston Bruins, Lightning coach Jon Cooper was asked if he was worried about his 100-point scorer. Short answer? No. Long answer: “Kuch is one of those guys that every time he has the puck in the offensive zone, your heart skips a beat. Every time he has it, there’s a chance it’s going in. You just have to reinforce that. … Eventually those pucks will [go in].”

In the first two games against the Caps, Kucherov has picked up an assist in each game, but has zero even-strength points. He hasn’t provided the palpitations we’ve come to expect from him; really, none of the Lightning players have. The Capitals are clogging the neutral zone and shooting lanes, hampering what’s usually a high-octane offense.

If the Lightning are going to win this series, a player like Kucherov is going to have to take over — and those pucks, as Cooper said, will have to go in.

Greg Wyshynski: Steven Stamkos. Full stop.

Look across the ice. The only player since 2008 with more goals than Stamkos (348) in the regular season is Alex Ovechkin (509). Ovechkin is exerting his will on this postseason in a way we haven’t seen before, not just scoring at the expected rate, but scoring when it matters most. Stamkos has 13 points in 12 games, but all but four of them have come on the power play. That’s not to say they don’t count as much as a 5-on-5 point, but this series clearly isn’t going to be about special teams. It’s going to be about converting even-strength chances rather than over-passing. It’s going to be about winning the possession game, which Tampa showed it can do in the previous round. And it’s going to take a star player stepping up with an effort befitting one in a must-win game.

Stamkos hasn’t been a problem, per se, but he can be a solution. If he can’t be … well, just because you’ve played for a Stanley Cup doesn’t mean you’ve won one. And the guy on the other side of the ice looks like he wants to win one by any means necessary.

Chris Peters: Giving up 10 goals in the first two games isn’t completely on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, but if he doesn’t have his best going forward, this series will be a short one.

On some of Washington’s goals, you just have to tip your cap, like Tom Wilson‘s early tip in Game 2 or the goals scored on odd-man breaks. However, those two goals allowed at the end of the second period in Game 2 — particularly the soft Evgeny Kuznetsov goal — were back-breaking.

This is Vasilevskiy’s first postseason as the sole owner of Tampa’s net. He’s still young and has plenty of experience to gain, but he needs to be a stopper and give his team a chance. With how well Washington has played in this series so far, he’ll have to probably do more than give the team a chance. He’s going to have to steal some games. Cooper was quick to confirm that Vasilevskiy is his guy going forward.

Coming off of a career year where at times he was the best player on a team full of stars, the 23-year-old has to find a way to get that back on the road.

Ben Arledge: I agree with Emily and Chris, as Kucherov and Vasilevskiy are two big ones here. But for the sake of variety, I’ll go with Victor Hedman. The 6-foot-6 impact defenseman has played more than 26 minutes per game to lead the Bolts this postseason, but he has just eight assists and a goose egg in the goal column so far in the playoffs. He scored 17 times during the regular season and tallied 26 power-play points while quarterbacking the Lightning’s unit. Hedman is going to have to start finding the back of the net if the Lightning want to claw back into this series.

The good news for Lightning fans is that he’s too good to be held in check much longer. He’ll also have to pick up his defensive play, with Tampa Bay leaning on him for big minutes as a top-pair blueliner. As Chris pointed out, the 10 goals through the first two games of the series aren’t entirely on Vasilevskiy, and they obviously aren’t on Hedman either, but as a collective group, the defense needs to step up. That starts with Hedman. Look for the Swede to put together a strong game both offensively and defensively on Tuesday to help Tampa Bay avoid a devastating three-game deficit.



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