TAMPA – When do you know?
The runaway Tampa Bay Lightning thinks it knows. To a man, the think they have what it takes to win the Stanley Cup after smashing records right and left, though no member of the team has ever won the cup.
For now, it’s just a feeling.
But when do you know?
Or do you know only when someone hands you the trophy?
There might not be a better team to ask than the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, who were in town Friday for an optional practice for their game Saturday night against the Lightning – Round 3, or Round 10, depending on how you look at it.
The Caps knocked off the Lightning in seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. The Lightning, the best team in the league, has already beaten the Capitals twice this season. The Lightning are out to beat everybody and everything in sight.
The Caps found the way last season. This after consecutive Presidents’ trophies and no Stanley Cup to show for them. Washington players received Presidents’ Trophy miniatures.
“I never even took them out of the boxes,” Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
The Caps, who lead the Metropolitan Division, seem like old Cup hands now, having won it, knowing how they won it. It makes this a confident team as the playoffs loom. Yes, the Lightning pounded them in Tampa, then survived a 58-shot Capitals attack in the District and won, but the Caps have something the Lightning don’t have.
But when did they know?
“I think for us it was the Pittsburgh series,” Capitals right winger T.J. Oshie said. “That was holding us back, not being able to get past Pittsburgh, seeing them go on and win a couple of years in a row. I think we had belief before that, but we had reassurance once we were able to close that series out.”
“I don’t think you do know,” said Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, who shut out the Lightning in Games 6 and 7 last year. “I think we knew we could do it for years. But winning it, you realize there is no secret formula.”
Think about it: If Columbus’ Cam Atkinson’s overtime shot doesn’t hit the post, the Caps are down 3-0 in their first-round series. They’re done.
“And a couple of bad breaks and we never would have gotten past Pitt,” Holtby said.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” Oshie said. “There is a little luck involved. That’s just the way it goes. There were a couple of years when Pittsburgh would get these crazy bounces on us, and we always thought why can’t those happen for us? Last year was kind of the opposite.”
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Now they know.
“It’s just a feeling of how deep you have to dig, how much you have to give,” Oshie said. “It sticks with you. We’ve seen it here in this locker room at different times during this season, not as consistently as we would like it, but we know that it’s still there.
“They’re obviously a great team and found something that works for them. They’re going to be a beast in the playoffs, no matter who they face. We haven’t found a way to beat them yet. They’ve been two pretty exciting games, the kind of games where you already wish it was a series, that we could play each other two nights later.”
When do you know?
““It definitely had that feel last year,” Orpik said. “We’d won the Presidents’ Trophy the previous two years, but last year definitely felt like the best team we’ve had. Everybody just kind of fit right in there.”
The Lightning won’t know until it knows.
“It’s really hard to tell in the regular season,” Oshie said. “A series spells it out a lot more, where you can find out you have what it takes or if you’re on the right track. I just think we can look back on the experience and know what each guy had to give to get there. There’s a lot we can look back on to remind us how we did it, and what we’re going to need to do it again.”
Washington players made an epic celebration of their Cup win. It went on all summer.
“Once you win it, you see how much you enjoy it and it drives you to want to win it again.”
“It’s always going to be close even when you win it,” Holtby said. “There’s no formula. You just have to play.”
Holtby thought of the Lightning.
“But don’t play too well,” he said with a smile.
Contact Martin Fennelly at email@example.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.