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No one believed the Capitals would be here. No one believed they could achieve this. No one believed they’d make it this far. But now they are here: the Washington Capitals will make an appearance in the NHL’s Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998. Capitals Radio Network broadcaster John Walton put it best: “the demons have been exorcised”.
And now, nearly 24 hours after Evgeny Kuznetsov delivered the final blow to slay the team’s admirable adversaries, the Pittsburgh Penguins, many fans are coming down from the high that came with the sweet taste of victory. The Caps now have another hurdle to leap over, and like the Penguins before them, the Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t going to lie down and accept defeat. They are hungry. They are determined. And they have a roster full of dangerous and talented stars who want their turn holding Lord Stanley’s Cup. While the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a whole different can of worms than any regular season series, we believe a look back the Capitals’ three contests against the Bolts may help us envision what’s next for the boys in Red.
The Capitals faced the Lightning three times during the regular season, and each time, saw a different result. The first time the two clubs clashed was in the Sunshine State on October 9, 2017. In this very early stage of the season, the Lightning bested the Caps 4-3 in overtime. The game saw one goal scored by Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, and two by right wing T.J. Oshie. Tampa Bay, however, had a late rally and came away with the victory on goals by Brayden Point, Alex Killorn, and Chris Kunitz, to tie the game and send into overtime. Lightning star Nikita Kucherov would win the game for the Bolts in overtime during a power play during which Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin was serving a minor penalty.
The two teams met again a little over a month later, on November 24. This time, on home ice at Capital One Arena, the Capitals would overwhelm the Lightning by a score of 3-1, to earn their only win against Tampa Bay this season. Interestingly, the Caps scored one goal in each period of the game, and each one came from a different player. Goals were tallied in this game by Jay Beagle, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Alex Ovechkin. The sole Tampa tally came in the first period from Vladislav Namestnikov, who was traded at the trade deadline to the New York Rangers.
The final meeting between the two former Southeast Division rivals wouldn’t be for quite some time. On February 20, in Washington, the Lightning had a first period flurry that the Capitals would be unable to recover from. That isn’t to say that the Caps didn’t try. The final score that evening was 4-2. Minus the first period, the rest of the game was evenly contested. The Bolts’ busy night saw goals from Kunitz, Kucherov, and two-goal burst from Point. Washington’s pair of goals came from Lars Eller and Ovechkin.
Since that game, the Caps have had no contact with the Bolts, and a lot has changed for the team since then. The biggest thing to note is that in their first two games against the Atlantic Division Champions, backup goalie Philipp Grubauer was in net, and in the last outing, Holtby guarded the crease. That said, the team’s 4-2 loss with Holtby in goal was smack in the middle of Holtby’s little “rut” that stretched from the All-Star break in January, to about the end of the season. Since then, Holtby has very much earned back the starting gig and was able to pick up right where he left off. Another big change is the addition of defenseman Michal Kempny. The Caps acquired Kempny in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks the day before their final meeting with Tampa Bay and while he did participate in that day’s morning skate, he was busy settling into the DC area while the team went to battle and didn’t hit the ice with that night. Kempny has proven to be a very reliable defenseman since joining the Capitals and is somewhat of a silent assassin, that is, his name isn’t on the scoresheet every night, but his presence is always felt. He’s an excellent blueliner who has come into his own in Washington, and could have potentially made a difference in the 4-2 loss. Add a refreshed Holtby and a new blueliner in Kempny to a number of line change experiments, and the Capitals seem to have found a team who knows how to get the job done even in the most dismal of situations.
The Lightning have also made some changes to their lineup since their last contest with the Caps. The most noteworthy change is the aforementioned trade agreement with the New York Rangers. This trade saw Bolts powerhouse skater in Namestnikov along with teammates Brett Howden and Libor Hajek (and two draft picks) sent to the Empire state for J.T. Miller and the Rangers’ former captain, defenseman Ryan McDonagh. As if the Bolts weren’t impressive enough before, they added two big names off the Rangers roster to their own; and with them, the Bolts look now to the same thing the Capitals do, the Conference Finals.
Nobody said this was going to be easy. The Tampa Bay Lightning got here the same way the Caps did, through hard work, determination, and skill. There was no luck involved in either team making it this far. But rest assured, the Bolts will get their red ROCKED when the Finals begin on Friday night. The Capitals managed to beat Pittsburgh with half of their Top Six and five rookies, anything can happen. Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and (hopefully) Andre Burakovsky will be returning to the lineup soon. Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy better be ready; the Washington Capitals are coming to Tampa and they aren’t leaving without a few big wins.
By: Chris Laroche