Beating the Pittsburgh Penguins for just the second time in 11 playoff series and for the first time since 1994 was uplifting for the Capitals, mostly because it propelled them to the Eastern Conference final for the first time in 20 years. The Caps’ Monday night victory over the Penguins in Pittsburgh certainly stands as one of the most satisfying – and most important – triumphs in Washington’s franchise history.
There was some celebrating, to be sure, but the jubilation was quickly set aside. Washington’s goal was not to beat the Penguins in a playoff series, the Pens were merely in the way of the Caps’ team dream of hoisting the Stanley Cup sometime next month.
“It obviously feels nice to get to the conference final,” says Caps right wing T.J. Oshie. “But we’ve got a bear of team ahead of us. There wasn’t too much celebrating, but it definitely feels good to move on and keep playing.”
Now, it’s the Tampa Bay Lightning that is in the way. The Caps will face the Lightning in the postseason for the third time in their history, and they’re seeking their first win over the Bolts.
“It wasn’t really a celebration, we just were happy,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “We’re going to celebrate when it’s over, and I hope we’re going to win the Cup. Then we’re going to be celebrating. But right now, it’s just satisfaction that we beat the Stanley Cup champions finally, and we move forward. We’re going to play against a very good team, against very good goaltending and solid players over there.”
The Lightning finished the regular season with 113 points, tops among all Eastern Conference clubs. The Bolts dispatched with each of their first two playoff opponents with relative ease, taking out the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins in five games each.
After losing Game 1 of the Boston series, the Bolts roared back to win the next four, so they’ll enter their third-round series against Washington with a four-game winning streak.
Heading into Friday night’s series opener between the Caps and the Bolts in Tampa, the two old Southeast Division rivals have faced one another just once in the last five and a half months. Tampa Bay earned a 4-2 win over the Capitals in Washington on Feb. 20, but both of these teams have changed a bit since then.
Washington added defensemen Michal Kempny in a trade with Chicago the day before that game, and the Caps dealt with Montreal for depth defenseman Jakub Jerabek a day later. And less than a week after that game in the District, Tampa Bay swung one of the biggest swaps of the season, obtaining defenseman Ryan McDonagh and versatile forward J.T. Miller from the New York Rangers.
That Feb. 20 game against the Lightning was the last game Washington played without Kempny, who has helped solidify the Caps’ blueline playing in the team’s top four alongside John Carlson. That defensive improvement must continue against the Lightning, which was the league’s highest scoring team with an average of 3.54 goals per game during the regular season. The Caps were ninth in that department with an average of 3.12 goals per game.
In the postseason, the Caps and the Winnipeg Jets are leading the way offensively with 3.58 goals per game. Both the Lightning and the Caps are capable of lighting the lamp, and the two teams have a fair amount of similarities.
“In a lot of ways I think they play like us,” says Caps winger Brett Connolly, a former member of the Lightning. “I think they’re a quick strike [team], they’re getting the puck up quick. Offensively, they’re good off the rush. They bring in McDonagh and Miller, so they’ve clearly brought in some good pieces.”
During Barry Trotz’s four seasons behind the Washington bench, the Caps have forged an 8-2-2 record against the Lightning, and Caps goalie Braden Holtby owns a 5-2-1 career record at Tampa Bay’s Amalie Arena. Does that prior success against the Lightning give them any added confidence for this series?
“Yes and no,” says Holtby. “Obviously it won’t mean anything once you hit the ice. It won’t have any effect on the game. But I think in preparation, we’re confident in playing them and that should lead to more preparation and we can just focus on what we have to do to have success, and not worry about any other past circumstances or whatever. So it’s probably a benefit.”
Washington’s team defense was effective in neutralizing Columbus star Artemi Panarin in the first round, and the Caps adroitly limited Pittsburgh’s offensive output to just a single line in the second round. Now that they’re facing the league’s most potent offensive attack, they’ve got an even more formidable challenge in front of them.
“I think our group knows we can play against those type of players,” says Holtby. “I think that’s the bigger thing is we have confidence in it. Every team – especially at this point – has those players it seems now. We have a couple of defensemen who can play literally against anyone in the league and success, so we’re strong in those areas, too.”
Nikita Kucherov was the Lightning’s leading scorer during the regular season, finishing with 39 goals and 100 points. In 14 career games against the Capitals, he has eight goals and 13 points.
“He got 100 points this year, right,” says Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov. “So he is one of the best players this year. But I don’t think we should focus on one guy because the other two guys who play with him, they’re pretty dangerous, too. So if we’re going to play our game, it’s like I’ve said all year, it’s pretty hard to defend. If you’re without the puck, it’s impossible to score – it’s impossible to be in the game. That’s what we want to do.”
Steven Stamkos rebounded from an injury-riddled season in 2016-17 to play in 78 games and register 27 goals and 86 points in 2017-18. Sophomore Bolts center Brayden Point racked up 32 goals and 66 points during the regular season, and he has four goals and 10 points in 10 games in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay has scoring spread liberally throughout its top three lines, and it has a veteran-laden fourth line that forechecks well and provides energy. The Lightning has been the league’s top possession team in the postseason, generating 54.3% of all five-on-five shot attempts.
Tampa Bay’s blueline is led by Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman, but ex-Rangers McDonagh and Anton Stralman are also key pieces who log a lot of minutes. Lightning netminder – and Vezina Trophy finalist – Andrei Vasilevskiy led the NHL with 44 victories during the regular season, and he has played well in posting an 8-2 mark in the playoffs.
“They’re a deep hockey team,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz of the Lightning. “They’ve got a lot of veteran players on their team, a lot of captains. They’re deep through the lineup in terms of their offensive ability. They’ve got a real good sort of agitating, hard-nosed line in their fourth line that has a lot of experience, and have done a lot of winning, that group. They’ve got a couple of real good pairs of defensemen and a good goalie. They’re a good, deep hockey team. You don’t get to be in the final four unless you have good depth and you have people stepping up on every line. The challenge is too big.”
“I think when we have success against them,” says Holtby, referring to the Lightning as a whole, “we play a real structured game, one that’s focused on our end out. They’re a team that if the game opens up, they’re real dangerous. They can trade chances and such.
“Especially now with them boosting their back end a little bit, we’re going to have to play even more structured and make the right decisions, especially at our blueline and their blueline. That’s when we’ve had success against them, is when we’re making the right decisions in those areas.”
One of the keys for Washington is going to be for the Caps to hold their own until center Nicklas Backstrom is ready to return to the Washington lineup. Backstrom was injured late in Game 5 of the Pittsburgh series, and the Caps had to close out the Lightning without him, Andre Burakovsky (upper body) and Tom Wilson (league suspension).
Burakovsky and Wilson are back for the Caps in Game 1 of the Tampa series, but Backstrom is still day-to-day with an upper body ailment. Besides keeping the series close until Backstrom is back, the Caps’ main task will be to limit the Lightning’s lamp-lighting propensity.
“I think our play away from the puck is coming together pretty good,” says Oshie. “We’re making – for the most part – pretty good reads. And when everyone is playing the same defensively, offensively we know it’s different in skill level from line to line and from person to person, but defensively, if we’re all on the same page, it makes everything that much easier. It gets us the puck that much easier so we can go play in the fun zone. And it just makes us predictable so we know a guy is going to be in a certain position, and we can just worry about ourselves.
“I think that’s been the biggest difference here in this last two months or so. I know there has been a lot of focus on just solely the last couple of games, or maybe just the second round, but our [defensive] zone and our coverage – our neutral zone – has been very much improved since the regular season.”
As exhilarating as it is for the Caps to finally put the Pens behind them and reach the long-elusive third round, Washington is still only halfway to the 16 victories it needs to achieve its goal.
“It’s the conference final,” says Wilson. “It’s the [NHL’s] semi-finals; there are four teams left. If you’re not going to get up for this series, then you’ve got a problem. So there is going to be no lack of desperation or energy or anything like that. We’re going to be ready to go and we’re going to give it all we’ve got. It’s the final four and it’s pretty exciting to get after it.
“That being said, you’ve got to stay on an even keel. The emotions can be high and low, but you’ve got to learn from a guy like Justin Williams and use the emotion when it’s there. You’re allowed to use your emotion, but don’t get on either end of the spectrum. Make sure you’re somewhat even keel, use the good emotion when it’s there – you need to, you need the adrenaline, that’s huge for a team. Use the momentum. But if they score a goal, you’ve got to get right back into it. If you score a goal, you’ve got to get right back into it. I think reaction is big. There is going to be no lack of going after it.
Washington has a built-in dislike for both the Blue Jackets and the Penguins, having spent the last five seasons as cohabitants of the Metropolitan Division. There was never much of a rivalry between Tampa Bay and Washington during the days of the Southeast Division, but that’s about to change, according to Wilson.
“They’re a good team and we know we have to go after the game,” says Wilson. “It’s going to be a rivalry by the end of the series, 100 percent. It’s going to be a war. At this time of year, any hockey game is going to be a war. It’s going to be fun, and I think if we talk in September or October, there will be a Tampa-Washington rivalry. That’s what these series do to teams.”