May 11 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7 and FAN 106.7
Game 1, Eastern Conference final series.
Plenty of attention, ink, pixels and talk have been paid – and rightfully so – to the Capitals’ 2-1 overtime victory on Monday, a win that sends Washington to Tampa Bay this weekend, where it will open up a third-round playoff series against the Lightning.
Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime goal gave the Caps a triumph over the Penguins in Pittsburgh, simultaneously ending a string of seven straight playoff series in which the Pens prevailed over the Caps, and vaulting the Capitals to the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1998.
One overtime goal, multiple dragons slain. That’s efficiency.
That’s not what the Caps came for, though, and they realize they’ve got much more playoff work ahead of them than behind them. Sure they have eight wins, half the amount needed to achieve their goal. But they know that getting the next eight will require even more blood, sweat and adversity than where they’ve come from, which is not insignificant.
Three and a half weeks ago, the Caps were in Columbus for their first road game of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. They were in double overtime against the Blue Jackets, a bounce or a snipe away from being in a 0-3 canyon in the series, having dropped the first two at home, and in overtime.
A week ago, they were coming off a series-tying loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh, preparing for a critical Game 5 against the Pens without Tom Wilson, who still had two more games of his suspension to serve. Monday’s series-clinching win over the Pens came without not only Wilson, but also without Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky. Missing three top-six forwards and playing with five rookies in their lineup, the Caps knocked off a Pittsburgh team that featured 13 players with two Stanley Cup rings in each of the last two springs.
Now, the Caps are packing for a trip to Tampa. They’re facing the Lightning in their first trip to the third round of the playoffs in two decades.
Having come so close for so many years, the Caps are certainly appreciative of what they’ve achieved and how hard it is to get to this halfway point, and they’re also determined to seize this opportunity and wring it for all it’s worth. They know they can’t count on getting back to this point again.
Ten years ago this spring, Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen played in the Western Conference final as a 21-year-old rookie with the Dallas Stars, losing to eventual Cup champs Detroit in six games. He wouldn’t play in another playoff game for three years, not until after he was traded to Pittsburgh. Niskanen has played in 801 regular season and 106 playoff games during that time, and he’s still looking to get beyond where he first went a decade ago.
“I haven’t been beyond the conference final,” says Niskanen. “Last series was a big step for our group. We should be proud of that; it’s a good achievement. But I think we’ve got to be greedy. We’ve got to want more, because this is a heck of an opportunity. And if anybody knows better than this group, I don’t think there is a group out there who knows how hard it is to get to this point. So don’t waste the opportunity by not being focused or realizing the situation, how big of an opportunity it is.”
While the Caps do have an unusually high – for them, anyway – number of rookies this season, they also have a fair number of veterans who have been in the league for several seasons now. Yet only three of the players in the room – Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Lars Eller – have previously played in a conference final series, and only Orpik has a Cup ring.
“They won’t really know until a couple of years down the road,” says Eller of the younger Caps. “They’re lucky to be in this position. I’ve been to the conference final once before, and I’ve been in the league eight or nine years. They’re lucky to be here and they’re just going to have to soak it all in, but they probably won’t realize how hard it is to get here until they play a couple more years. You just don’t know, but it’s valuable experience for them.”
It is a valuable experience for sure, and Washington’s bunch of youngsters might not be as wide-eyed or starry-eyed as most in getting this far this fast in the playoffs. Six of the Caps’ seven rostered rookies – Madison Bowey, Travis Boyd, Christian Djoos, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Nathan Walker – went all the way to the Calder Cup final with the AHL Hershey Bears two springs ago. Five of those six went to the final in their first season as a pro; only Walker wasn’t an AHL rookie that season.
Both Boyd and Walker were able to step in cold and play in Game 6 against the Penguins. Both hadn’t played in weeks, and both were making their NHL playoff debuts. Neither player’s knees were knocking.
“I know it’s different leagues and everything, but at the end of the day it’s still playoff hockey,” says Boyd. “And I’ve been fortunate to have a couple of good rounds down in Hershey the last couple of years. It’s just as much of a battle and a grind as it is up here, too. Obviously you get up here and the execution is so much better and the defense is so much better and all of that, but in terms of intensity and how the game is played in the playoffs, it was pretty similar.”
The Caps’ group of rookies already shared the bond of a couple of playoff runs in Hershey, and that bond is getting strong now that they’ve all matriculated to the next level.
“Us young guys, we’re really close and we got along so well that first year with that long run,” says Boyd. “Some people go their whole careers barely playing any playoff games and some people land on good teams and make runs. We’ve been fortunate – us young guys have been fortunate – through our first three seasons here to be on some good teams and have some good playoff runs. And all of us young guys who are here are going to do everything we can to help the group keep going.”
With 113 points, Tampa Bay was the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, and the Lightning has been more than formidable this spring, too. The Bolts disposed of New Jersey in five games in the first round, and they took out Boston in five games in the second round, winning four straight after dropping the opener at home.
This season marks the Lightning’s third trip to the Eastern Conference final in four years. The Lightning advanced all the way to the Cup final in 2015, ultimately falling to Chicago. Pittsburgh eliminated the Lightning in Game 7 of the ECF in 2016, and raft of injuries caused Tampa Bay to narrowly miss out on the playoffs last spring. The Bolts figure to be every bit as hungry as the Capitals as this series unfolds.
“Obviously they have solid lines,” says Ovechkin of the Lightning. “Right now in this situation and at this time of year, everybody has the best players over there and the best goalies, and you have to be the best to beat them. That has to be in our mind. You have to play as a group and not individually. Like we did against Pittsburgh; we played together and it doesn’t matter what the score was, we still believe in each other and know we can do that.”
Washington and Tampa Bay met three times during the regular season, and the Caps were 1-1-1 in those games, but they’re 8-2-2 against the Lightning in Trotz’s four seasons behind the bench. The two teams have played just once in the last five and a half months, a 4-2 Tampa Bay victory at Capital One Arena on Feb. 20.
That game against the Bolts in February is noteworthy as the last game the Caps played without defenseman Michal Kempny, who was obtained from Chicago the day before. It was also days before the Lightning swung one of the biggest deals leading up to the NHL’s trade deadline, a swap that brought defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller from Manhattan to Florida.
“They’re deep,” says Eller of the Bolts, “they’re skilled, they have strong goaltending – a lot like us in a lot of ways. So it’s no surprise that they are where they are.”
In taking on Tampa, Washington also finds itself in the relatively unique situation of starting a playoff series on the road for just the fourth time in 18 series during the Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom era. The last series the Caps opened on the road was their second-round set against the New York Rangers in 2015.
If the recent past is any indication, the Caps are fine with playing on the road. They’ve won five of six road playoff games this spring, and 10 of their last 11 road games overall dating back to March 22.
“You’re not too emotional as the road team,” says Eller. “You can tend to get more – almost too – overhyped at home sometimes and you don’t really get that on the road as much, for some reason. And that’s where the discipline comes into play.”
“It definitely doesn’t hurt,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz, of playing on the road. “I think that in the playoffs the home ice advantage, just look at the records. I don’t think there is a big, big advantage – to some teams more than others – but overall I don’t think it’s that big of an advantage that it [used to be].”
Road or home, the Caps don’t care. Pittsburgh is in the rear view mirror, and the focus is now entirely on Tampa Bay.
“We’re only halfway to our goal,” says Eller. “Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. Beating Pittsburgh was just a step on the way. So I think we deserve to enjoy it, but I think already the minds are starting to change a little bit – looking past that and preparing for Tampa Bay. But after that night in [Pittsburgh] – and [Tuesday] there was certainly that emotional stage where you’re enjoying that win and savoring it. But now we’ve got to start preparing for Tampa.”