Hindsight now tells us that the Caps’ most formidable foe in their Stanley Cup championship run was not Las Vegas, the final team they beat to send the District into a world of glee. The Golden Knights entered Friday’s games with only the 12th-best record in the league. The Caps defined themselves by posting back-to-back shutouts over the Lightning in Games 6 and 7 to reach that Cup showdown.
Perhaps the only thing better for the Caps would be to beat the mighty Lightning again this year as Washington tries to defend its first Stanley Cup championship.
Twice in the past week, the Caps and Lightning have given us regular season masterpieces. Both were won by Tampa Bay but only after it was pushed to the limit. On Wednesday night, the Caps carried the battle to the Lightning, probably outplayed it and unleashed 58 shots, a franchise record, at Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy — perhaps the extra “i” in his name is emblematic of the extra eye he seems to have in the back of his head. But Washington lost, 5-4, in overtime in what many hailed as the most exciting game of the Caps’ season.
If all the blood and knuckles, brilliant play and brutal hostility between these teams is their new norm, then we can only hope they meet again in May.
If it comes to that, the Caps would face a Lightning team with an almost insane 57-13-4 record (plus-97 in goal differential) that already has clinched the Presidents’ Trophy. That’s a .797 points percentage — on pace to be the best full 82-game season in this century. For reference, in the Caps’ three Presidents’ Trophy runs, they rang up points percentages of .720, .732 and .738.
“Vasy was sensational. We didn’t play our best. . . . They had a little more emotion than we did, but you still find a way to win,” Lightning star Steven Stamkos said. “It’s two really good hockey teams with some very good players and some great goalies and some good special teams. . . . They’re the defending champs, so we have to raise our level to eventually follow in their footsteps.
“It’s regular season. It doesn’t mean a thing when the playoffs start,” Stamkos added. “I’m sure both of us would be very happy to see each other again if it’s the Eastern Conference final . . . a long way to get there. We’ll hopefully see them.”
Actually, Stamkos understates the case for this matchup. The rink is not littered with “very good players” but with legends, such as himself and Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, as well as stars all over the ice who may end up Hall of Famers or close.
To grasp the magnitude of the Caps’ challenge against high-scoring Tampa Bay, the Lightning’s top scorer, Nikita Kucherov, has 119 points with eight games to play. Ovechkin’s career high is 112.
Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point and Stamkos have 87 and 85 points, respectively. Nicklas Backstrom once had 101, but his next-best year was 88 points. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s best is 83. Though Ovechkin is in a world of his own as a goal scorer, you will seldom see six more fabulous all-around offensive forces in one game than when these two teams meet. The teams have 11 players with 20 or more goals.
“It’s their passing level that’s elite — and then guys are finishing into half-open nets,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “Seam passes, passes away from the puck with deception or away from the play with deception, so you just cannot quit on any plays defensively against this team.”
The Caps’ key advantage last year was physical play, especially forechecking and, at times, intimidation. Both meetings this year have been a blend of spectacular gifts — stick-handling and creative shooting — with a simultaneous effort to prove that one team has more muscle and under-control meanness.
Because the Lightning leads the NHL in power-play conversion (29.3 percent), avoiding penalties is vital. On Wednesday, the Caps didn’t, allowing three power-play goals. To give Tampa Bay its due, its fearful speed in transition often forces penalties.
“Five-on-five, they feed off turnovers. That’s how they get their chances,” Caps goalie Braden Holtby said. “I thought Pittsburgh was patient, but they’re even more when it comes to finding that extra pass to make it even tougher.”
For anyone who has missed either of these games, the Caps and Lightning meet again, in Tampa, on March 30 — yes, three games in a possible mini-playoff preview in the span of just 15 days. Already the grudges and bad blood are building, especially after valuable Washington defenseman Michal Kempny was helped off the ice, unable to put weight on his left knee, after a second-period brawl against the sideboards in which he was buried under a pile of players.
Scuffles and cussing broke out everywhere, but the only blood-producing fight was between the Caps’ Jakub Vrana, a skilled, 23-year-old forward, and the Lightning’s Yanni Gourde. Vrana lost on my card and certainly left bleeding, but he will never get more fist bumps from his teammates. From that moment, the Caps picked up their play, eventually forcing overtime with just 53 seconds left to play on a goal by Kuznetsov, who went into his wing-flapping celebration.
“There’s certain opportunities you get that are galvanizing moments for your team. When you have Jakub Vrana getting into a fight — a guy that doesn’t do it, ever — that says a lot,” Reirden said. “That’s something that always needs to be pointed out: courage and team togetherness. . . . That was discussed between periods, and hopefully that helped push us along into the third.”
Do these late-season head-to-heads carry postseason weight? “No. I don’t know. Maybe, like, for fans, for people who like to trash talk,” Kuznetsov said.
One appeal of the NHL is to watch large athletes on skates flying at high speeds, who smash into each other for 60 minutes, have a half-dozen scrums or mass fights, see blood drawn or a teammate helped to the dressing room, then afterward listen as everyone claims that nothing happened. Might as well have been a cotillion, everyone just making sure to have a partner for the next waltz.
“There’s a little bit of animosity and rivalry forming with them,” Reirden said wryly, because moments before he had said how important he thought it was for Vrana to try to punch someone’s Lightning out.
“They’re fun games. . . . Our guys like playing those.”
Then please, oh, please, let’s have a whole bunch more of ’em.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.