It may be debatable for some, but the Tampa Bay Lightning are arguably, a better team than the Washington Capitals, at least on paper. They can match or, in most cases, play better than the lines the Capitals can throw on the ice. The Lightning are deep, fast, very very skilled, and well coached. Just about every number and the eye test say they are better than the Caps. However, the Caps are entering this series considered as the underdogs, and that could be a blessing in disguise.
But there’s one thing the Capitals have in spades over the Lightning and that’s motivation. Obviously, every team wants to win the Stanley Cup, but the Capitals just broke a 20-year “curse”; a victory that resonated with the newest of fans to captain Alex Ovechkin himself.
In this way they are an “underdog”. It’s hard to know exactly how they’ll react to the historic win they just orchestrated. Are they satisfied as is? Will they take beating the Pittsburgh Penguins as good enough and be willing to accept their fate? Or are they going to use that as fuel and motivation to keep pressing hard to go for the ultimate goal?
After the game against the Penguins, many of the players, such as goaltender Braden Holtby didn’t think the second round series win was the last stop. “It feels good right now, but it’s not our main goal. Obviously everyone knows the difficulties we’ve had getting out of the second round but that doesn’t make a difference in our main goal.” Holtby continued, “Our main goal is still the Stanley Cup. The third round isn’t the Stanley Cup. We have to refocus now, we can enjoy it, use that energy as a kind of recharge for the halfway point and push full force into the next round because it will be a hard test.” After Thursday’s practice, defenseman Matt Niskanen echoed the same sentiment. “Last series was a big step for our group, we should be proud of that, it was a good achievement, but I think we got to be greedy. We have to want more.” He continued, “I don’t think there’s a group out there that knows [more than us] how hard it is to get to this point, so don’t waste the opportunity by not being focused.”
A very important aspect to this series is the fact that the Capitals have just about zero pressure on them by people outside the DMV to win the Stanley Cup, having been underdogs throughout the playoffs. Multiple pundits picked the Columbus Blue Jackets to “upset” the Capitals in the first round, and even more in their second round matchup against the Penguins. And few are picking Washington to beat Tampa Bay.
“That pressure of being the number one seed the last couple years weighed on us a little bit”, Niskanen commented. “I don’t know if this year the outside expectations being lower helped us or what, but the group found a lot of energy when we needed it so far. Both series we were able to block out any negative stuff and just bring it, just play, and you could see it. We played faster, guys were moving better, had more confidence with the puck in big situations. That’s what you need to play the game at your best.”
“I don’t think any of us were looking into the future or forward or anything this year because nothing has been handed to us.” Holtby said. “We haven’t just pushed our way through with just skill we’ve had to work for what we’ve got and I think that’s a good thing for building our group, building our maturity as a group. And now we have to refocus and keep that same mindset going forward.”
The Capitals have few expectations of them outside the organization, as they’re playing with all the momentum they need to keep going no matter the opponent on the other bench. All those aspects combined create a sort of x-factor: a non-existent statistic that could help them push through Tampa Bay to their first (and second overall) Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years. The Capitals seemed to have accepted their role and the adversity placed against them and will look to prove their doubters wrong. If the Lightning think this series will be a walk in the park, or that the Capitals will be like their other opponents played this spring, then they may find themselves hitting the beach early.
By Luke Adomanis