TAMPA — This increasingly epic Lightning season stops Saturday night at the intersection of hum and dinger.
The champs are in town.
The runaway Lightning, fresh from a rousing comeback in Detroit, armed with 54 wins, still chasing history, finally meets the 2017-18 Stanley Cup champions.
The Washington Capitals, who burned down the Lightning’s last season with the Lightning still in it, who remain a reminder that winning big means nothing without an exclamation point in the shape of the Cup.
The regular season is the regular season. The playoffs are the real deal. Only it will feel like playoffs Saturday night when Alex Ovechkin and the Caps return to the scene of their crime 10 months ago, when they took everything the Lightning had and more, when they outplayed the Lightning when it mattered and dashed Tampa Bay Cup hopes with a Game 7 win at Amalie in the Eastern Conference Finals, pitching a shutout for the series’ final 159 minutes.
Saturday isn’t for revenge.
But it’s close enough to raise the roof.
You remember them, Lightning fans. Ovechkin and Oshie and Backstrom and Kuznetsov and Wilson and Holtby, all those names engraved on hockey’s biggest prize. And you know your guys: Kuch and Stammer and Heddy and Johnny and Pointer and Vasi. All on one sheet of ice Saturday. It’s about the biggest regular-season game in Lightning history. I’d pay to listen to this one on the radio.
The NHL isn’t smartest sports league going, but in its in finite wisdom, it left the Lightning-Caps reunion until now, mid-March, with two more meetings before the season ends.
The Lightning have played every team in the league except the Capitals. The Capitals have played every team in the league except the Lightning. If they’ve been itching to get back at each other, Saturday they scratch that itch.
Tampa Bay doesn’t have to win Saturday any more than it has to set the record for most wins or points in a season. And as much as the Caps might be a measuring stick, I’d argue that the Lightning doesn’t need a measuring stick. I’d turn it the other way around.
Tampa Bay is the measuring stick.
This game will still pack a punch.
It will pack a punch because of last season’s knockout. It will pack a punch for Lightning players who on their home ice waited to shake hands with the delirious, finally victorious Capitals. It will pack a punch for anyone who saw Ovechkin, damn the superstitions, full speed ahead, carrying the Prince of Wales Trophy to the bus, clutching it as if it was a baby in swaddling.
But maybe that’s where this potential Lightning march to the Cup was born, burned into Tampa Bay brains. We’ll get an idea Saturday, a good idea.
Both teams have won eight of their last 10 games. Washington appears to be peaking at the right time. Tampa Bay has yet to go through a valley. Both teams have scary scoring depth. Both teams might end up two lines deep on 20-goal scorers.
There is Ovechkin, a generational goal scorer for maybe any generation. There is Steven Stamkos, who Saturday could pass Vinny Lecavalier for all-time Lightning goals. There is Nikita Kucherov, who reminded us in Detroit with a four-point night, including the game winner, that anyone who thinks he isn’t the league MVP should be penalized for being the third moron in. There is Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, a Vezina Trophy favorite as best goaltender, and there is Caps goalie Braden Holtby, who last June made the save that saved the Cup for the Caps in Game 2 of the Finals against Vegas.
It’s fascinating how quickly the Caps went from the tortured to the torturers. They could never win the big one but busted on the Lightning to get to the Finals, where they ended Vegas’ miracle. That Eastern Conference Final, that was for the Cup. At least it felt that way.
The champs are the champs until they aren’t. Washington still poses the same problems for the Lightning. The Caps are still heavier, they are still going to jump up and meet Tampa Bay in the neutral zone. And they’ve won the Cup, so they think they can win it again.
On the other hand, if a Columbus shot hadn’t bonked off the post in overtime, the Caps go 0-3 down in their opening series and never sniff the Cup. It was that close. It’s still that close.
The Lightning knows that all too well.
It’s just a matter of what Tampa Bay has learned from its disappointments the last few seasons. This season has shown that the Lightning has some hair on its chest. The comeback in Detroit said nothing is written until the Lightning finishes writing it.
Worlds collide Saturday. Rafters will shake. Tampa Bay doesn’t have to win this game, but its has to stand and be counted. Jon Cooper’s club recently blew away contender Winnipeg and devoured Toronto. But this is different. The champs are here.
No, it doesn’t matter until the playoffs, but the Lightning nevertheless needs to send a message Saturday night, not just to Washington but all the NHL. Not this season. Not on this watch.
Or maybe it’s the Caps who need to send the message.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly