Why the Capitals and Lightning — and Maple Leafs — all need a physical force on the top line

TAMPA, Fla. — For anyone questioning why Zach Hyman was playing on the top line with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, take a look at the two teams in the Eastern Conference final.

In Tampa Bay, J.T. Miller is playing alongside Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. In Washington, it’s Tom Wilson with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin.

On the surface, it looks like a classic case of “one of these things is not like the other.” But having a physical, no-frills winger to balance out two skilled scorers has become a recipe for success — as long as they can also think and play the game at a high level.

“You just can’t put a physical guy out there,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “You have to put a guy who has hockey sense and is skilled enough to make these plays. I think Miller definitely has that. And I look across the hallway and Wilson’s definitely evolved his game to be able to make plays with those guys.”

The stats would back up that assumption. While Boston was one of the few teams that loaded up its top line with three 30-goal scorers, there

Miller, who was acquired at the trade deadline from the New York Rangers, entered the conference final with seven points in 10 games. Wilson, who missed three games because of a suspension, has seven points in nine games.

“Every team has different components, every player has different strengths,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “Tom is a big, strong man. There is no denying that he has a physical element. There’s not many players like him in the league. But he also has a skill element, which is why he’s playing with those top players as well.”

Who knows, maybe having three skilled players would make Tampa’s and Washington’s top …read more

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