Who will be the X factor for Capitals-Lightning Game 7? Who will win?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Capitals fans waited roughly three rounds for Braden Holtby to step up and win a game for them on his own. Not just play well, but be the difference. He did that in Game 6, playing flawlessly in making 24 saves for his first shutout of the season. “Game 7’s going to be no different than [Games] 1-6 of this series,” he said.
Well, that might be Holtby’s mindset because he is 2-4 in Game 7s in his career, even though he has a respectable .923 save percentage. He has not been a liability in most of those losses, but he also hasn’t exerted his will on a game like he did in Game 6. Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has given no indication that his stellar play is going to wane in Game 7. Holtby has to match him — and better him.
That said, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m going to go back to something Lightning coach Jon Cooper said about home-ice advantage in the playoffs: It really doesn’t become a factor until Game 7. I think the Lightning find their level and eek out a win in Game 7 to advance to face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final.
Emily Kaplan, international NHL reporter: The Lightning’s top line is the X factor for me, specifically Nikita Kucherov. It feels like there’s something off with the 100-point scorer lately — Jon Cooper even moved his stud winger off the first line for some of Game 6. Kucherov and Steven Stamkos recorded only one shot each in Game 6; neither looked on. (I will note, Kucherov did ring one off the post at the end of the second period.) After blazing through the start of the playoffs with five goals in his first five games, Kucherov has scored just once in the Lightning’s last seven. And a player known for his physicality hasn’t recorded a hit in five straight contests.
This isn’t to place the blame solely on Kucherov. But we all know what he’s capable of when he’s on; he’s a one-man game-breaker with his skill and physicality. If Kucherov comes alive in Game 7, the Lightning’s chances for winning increase significantly, and that’s my pick for this contest.
Chris Peters, hockey prospects writer: I’ll often look to one of the goaltenders to be the difference in the game, but as we saw in Game 6, even another stellar performance from Vasilevskiy couldn’t save the Lightning. The Caps managed to scratch and claw their way to victory, and outlasted Tampa Bay with the help of their own goaltender. That was a statement win for the Caps, but I still like the Lightning’s chances here to come out of the series even though, as Emily noted, something is off with the top line.
That’s why I’m going with Brayden Point, who has had a remarkable postseason and has been one of Tampa’s top players in this series with six of his 16 playoff points coming against Washington. When the Bolts have been down this postseason, it has often been Point stepping up and responding. He has been a tenacious two-way force for the Bolts, often matching up against opponents’ top lines at even strength. At 22 years old, Point has quickly entered the discussion among the top young players in the game today. I think Point will make a significant contribution to a tight Game 7 win for Tampa Bay.
Ben Arledge, Insider NHL editor: While I love Chris’ Brayden Point selection and considered John Carlson from the other bench, I’m going with Yanni Gourde. The rookie potted 25 goals this season and eclipsed 60 points, yet he has just two goals in the playoffs, and none in the conference finals. The 26-year-old is due. Skating on a wing with Point and Tyler Johnson, and logging minutes with the second power-play unit, Gourde will be afforded plenty of opportunities to make a difference in Game 7.
Gourde has a nose for the net and a good shot, and I’ll look for him to play a sneaky big part in what I believe will be a Tampa Bay victory.