PHILADELPHIA — As the Washington Capitals made their way through the handshake line at Amalie Arena, there were well wishes from their defeated opponent and a promise for the future: “I’ll get you next year.” That was nearly 10 months ago. This season, the Tampa Bay Lightning has ripped through the NHL with far and away the league’s best record, but it hasn’t gotten its rematch from the Eastern Conference finals. Now the two teams, arguably the top contenders in the conference again, will play each other three times in two weeks, starting Saturday night in Tampa.
“Just call it a playoff series — why not?” Capitals forward Tom Wilson quipped.
Another one could be in store after last season’s matchup went the distance, the Capitals’ only seven-game series in the run to their first Stanley Cup. The Lightning is the NHL’s Goliath this season with a whopping 112 standings points, 18 better than the league’s second-best team entering Friday’s action, and it has the top-ranked power play and penalty kill. Washington isn’t David, but these late-season contests could give the Capitals some confidence that they can slay the giant come the postseason.
“We’re going to have to go through them if we’re going to do it again, and I think it’s a measuring stick for them, too,” forward Brett Connolly said. “We played them hard. It was an amazing series, and they’ve got that one circled on the calendar, I bet.”
Tampa Bay is the only team Washington hasn’t played yet, and three games this close to the postseason — the others are Wednesday in Washington and March 30 back in Tampa — should serve as a gauge for both clubs. The Capitals are rolling with eight wins in their past nine games, back atop the Metropolitan Division with just one loss since they added forward Carl Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen before the Feb. 25 trade deadline. The Lightning opted against roster tweaks, which makes sense given how it has dominated, and while the team doesn’t have much to play for over the final few weeks of the regular season with the Presidents’ Trophy and top playoff seed all but locked up, it still has won 15 of its past 17 games.
Like Washington, Tampa Bay has a superstar core in captain Steven Stamkos, winger Nikita Kucherov — the NHL’s scoring leader with 35 goals and 80 assists for 115 points — defenseman Victor Hedman and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. But the Lightning’s depth is what sets it apart.
“They have other guys that, if they weren’t behind those guys, they’d be superstars either there or somewhere else,” Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
Alex Ovechkin is Washington’s top point producer with 79 points, but Tampa Bay has three players with more than 80: Kucherov, second-line center Brayden Point (86) and Stamkos (81). Forward Yanni Gourde has 18 goals and 23 assists, and he’s on the fourth line. That’s why, despite the Capitals bringing back nearly their entire Stanley Cup-winning roster, the Lightning is the postseason favorite.
“That’s fine with us,” Orpik said. “Every group’s different, and some groups probably handle it better than others, but sometimes when you have that much success throughout the regular season, you don’t really face that much adversity. Something doesn’t go as planned in the playoffs; maybe you’re uncomfortable or you haven’t dealt with that type of discomfort at all during the regular season. I think that can work against you. They’re a pretty veteran team with a good culture, so you never know.”
What Orpik remembers most from last year’s series is Game 6, a must-win for Washington after Tampa Bay won three straight games. That was the most dominant performance of the Capitals’ postseason, with the team imposing its will on the Lightning in a 3-0 win. “Game 6 is what won us Game 7,” Orpik said. Tampa Bay’s talented offense was shut out that night and also in the decisive contest two nights later as Washington’s bruising play wore down the Lightning for a 4-0 victory.
“I think we have a formula for being successful against them,” Capitals center Lars Eller said. “It was being physical when you can, and the better you play without the puck, giving them less time and space, that’s going to create more offense for us. And then I think the key is staying out of the penalty box for sure."
That has been an issue for the Capitals over the past four games; they have been shorthanded at least four times in each one. Entering Friday, the Lightning had taken the most minor penalties in the league with 262 — Washington was second with 256 — but Tampa Bay had killed off 85.8 percent of them, while the Capitals were at 79.5 percent to rank 22nd. The Capitals’ biggest threat on the power play is Ovechkin firing one-timers from the left faceoff circle, but the Lightning has Stamkos doing the same and Kucherov in the right faceoff circle, a two-headed beast that gave Washington fits in the postseason.
But the Capitals are eager for the challenge after hearing so much about the big, bad Lightning all season. Neither team has forgotten that handshake line last season as one side advanced to the Stanley Cup finals and the other promised it would be there next year.
“We’re familiar with them,” Wilson said. “It’ll be good to see what they’ve got.”