Friday, May 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Three thoughts about the Lightning-Capitals matchup

Three things to think about as the Lightning and Capitals prepare to play each other in the Eastern Conference final.

Been there, done that

When the Lightning knocked off the Bruins in the last series, Tampa Bay appeared happy — and determined.

The celebration was muted in the Lightning locker room following the series-ending, Game 5 victory. Lightning veteran Ryan Callahan said, "We're only halfway there. We've got two more series to go."

Tampa Bay has been here before. This is the third time in four seasons that it has reached the conference final. Enough times to know that it isn't good enough. Thus, the business-like approach even as the players were still wiping off the sweat of the Boston series.

The Lightning's goal this season wasn't just to make the playoffs or even to get back to the final. Nothing less than a Stanley Cup will do. That has been the mission for four years now and the mission has yet to be accomplished.

The Lightning eventually needs to win a Cup to be considered a success during this current run with players such as Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and so on.

Now, let's be clear: the Caps have the exact same goal of winning a Cup. Following its second-round elimination of the Penguins, Caps coach Barry Trotz sounded just like Callahan when he said, "We haven't done anything yet."

Goalie Braden Holtby said, "The third round isn't the Stanley Cup."

But having said that, did you see the reaction — the huge sigh of relief — the Caps had when they beat the Penguins on Monday night? Captain Alex Ovechkin looked like the world was removed from his shoulders.

Granted, it was in overtime of a tense series against a hated opponent, but the Caps looked like a team that was pretty satisfied, as if they accomplished something huge. In a way, Washington had. It exorcised its personal demon and did something no one was convinced it could do, beat the Pens to reach the conference final for the first time in the Ovechkin era.

Frankly, the Caps looked like a team that was fulfilled. You have to wonder if they are in for a letdown. You have to wonder if they think the highest hurdle has been cleared when, in fact, it's about to get much tougher.

Washington has a few days to come off its high and get refocused. But it sure seems like the Lightning's emotions are in better check.

What happened was

Against each other during the regular season, the Lightning and the Capitals … uh, who cares?

If the playoffs have taught us anything, it's that the regular season doesn't mean a thing. The Devils were 3-0 against the Lightning this season and Tampa Bay dismantled them in five games.

Next? The Bruins, who were 3-1 against the Lightning in the regular season and pretty much owned Tampa Bay throughout the Lightning's history. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said the Bruins "waxed" Tampa Bay earlier this season. So what happened when the teams met in the playoffs? The Lightning lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, then won four straight in dominating fashion.

Clearly, the postseason is a different animal than the regular season and what happened in the regular season does not carry over into the playoffs.

For example, the Lightning went 2-1 against the Caps during the regular season, but one of the Lightning's victories came when Washington was playing the second game in two nights in two different cities.

Was there anything that can be learned from the three meetings?

Well, we saw that this Lightning team was able to better stand up physically to the Caps than it had in the past couple of seasons. There was a time not that long ago that Washington could manhandle the Lightning. Not anymore.

And the most surprising aspect of the Lightning's victory against the Bruins was just how physical Tampa Bay was. Not only did it withstand Boston's physical game, it took the physical game to the Bruins.

"I think maybe we did surprise them a little bit with that," Stamkos said after that series.

It all comes down to …

Goaltending, of course. We always say that. But it's true. Holtby is a former Vezina Trophy winner. The Lightning's Andrei Vasilevskiy is a finalist for the Vezina. Both are superb. But which one is more likely to give up a softie at a bad time? My guess is Holtby, giving the Lightning a slight edge in goal.

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