- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2018

If you hear national sports pundits saying the Washington Capitals are celebrating too early, don’t believe it.

The team was elated when Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime goal clinched the second-round playoff series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. But since then, Alex Ovechkin said, players have not been going wild.

“We just was happy. We’re going to celebrate when it’s over. I hope we’re going to win the Cup and then we’re going to be celebrating,” Ovechkin said Wednesday.

After taking Tuesday off, the Washington Capitals returned to practice Wednesday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex to prepare for the franchise’s first Eastern Conference Finals in 20 years.

They will face the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that finished the regular season atop the standings in the East. T.J. Oshie called them “a bear of a team” and said just because they aren’t a longtime rival like Pittsburgh doesn’t mean the Capitals won’t be motivated.

“We want to get to the Finals and they’re standing in the way. If you need anything really at this stage you may be in the wrong position,” Oshie said. “But if you need anything, they’re in the way of getting us to where we want to go. It’s going to be a tough obstacle to get past, but we have a good feeling in here we’re up to the task.”

Brett Connolly started his NHL career with the Lightning and played with many of their current starters.

“In a lot of ways, I think they kind of play like us,” Connolly said. “I think they’re quick-strike, they’re getting the puck up quick. Offensively they’re good off the rush. They bring in (defenseman Ryan) McDonagh and (forward J.T.) Miller, so they’ve clearly brought in some good pieces.”

Tampa acquired McDonagh and Miller from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline, after the Capitals completed their season series with them. Washington went 1-1-1 against Tampa in the regular season, the win coming at Capital One Arena on Nov. 24. Ovechkin, Devante Smith-Pelly and Jay Beagle scored in that night’s 3-1 win.

The Lightning are led by Andrei Vasilevski, who was one of the best goaltenders in the NHL this season. Ovechkin outlined the team’s plan to counter him.

“We just have to create the same traffic that we created against (Columbus’s Sergei) Bobrovsky and against (Pittsburgh’s Matt) Murray,” he said. “We played against top goalies the last two series and it’s not going to be a surprise he’s one of them.”

Another similarity between the Penguins and Lightning might be the skill of the upper lines.

“Their top-two lines especially, they’ve got guys that can really make plays — fast guys,” Matt Niskanen said. “Defensively, it’s going to be a lot of the same themes in terms of what’s going to be important. A little bit of a different style, just Xs-and-Os-wise, but the same dangerous threats.”

But what will make the Lightning stand out from the Capitals‘ previous opponent is their depth, a factor Capitals coach Barry Trotz discussed Wednesday.

“They’ve got a real good, sort of, agitating, hard-nose line in their fourth line that has a lot of experience and a lot of winning in that group,” Trotz said. “They’ve got a couple of real good pairs of defense, a good goalie. They’re just a good, deep hockey team. You don’t get to the final four, if you will, unless you have good depth and people stepping up on every line.”

Playing a structured game is the Capitals‘ key to success against Tampa, Braden Holtby said.

“If the game opens up they’re real dangerous. They can trade chances and such,” he said. “Especially now with a boost in their back end a little bit (McDonagh), we’re gonna have to play even more structured and make the right decisions, especially at our blue line and their blue line. That’s when we have success against them, is when we’re making the right decisions in those areas.”

Injury report

Trotz upgraded forward Andre Burakovsky from “week-to-week” to “day-to-day” and said both he and Nicklas Backstrom will travel with the team to Tampa for Games 1 and 2.

Burakovsky has not played since leaving Game 2 of the first round against the Blue Jackets with an upper-body injury. Backstrom was a game-time decision for the Capitals‘ Game 6 Monday but was ruled out.

Rookie Travis Boyd skated with the third line Wednesday, with normal third-line center Lars Eller on the second, the same way the Capitals lined up without Backstrom in Game 6.

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