Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning – A Cautionary Tale

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The Capitals currently lead the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, having won the first two games of the series on the road.  This series is reminiscent of the two team’s meeting in the 2003 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which NoVa Caps briefly looked back on recently. In this piece, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle takes a closer look at that particular series.

The Capitals started off the series in style, winning Game 1 3-0 on April 10, 2003.  Robert Lang opened the scoring just a few minutes in, and scored again with about two minutes left in the second period to give the Caps a 2-0 lead. Michael Nylander scored the Caps’ third goal a minute into the third period to put the game all but out of reach of the Bolts. Near the end of the game, two Capitals and one Lightning earned roughing penalties, but they occurred too late in the game for the Lightning to do any damage on the power play.

The Caps followed up their first victory with a second straight victory on April 12.  The first period started off with Capitals forward Jaromir Jagr scoring a goal just under five minutes into the contest. Offensive star Peter Bondra followed that with a power play goal less than three minutes later. While Vinny Prospal of Tampa Bay scored to put the Lightning within one goal, the Caps struck again with another goal by Jagr, this time on the power play, giving the Caps a 3-1 lead heading into the first intermission. During the second period, both teams added a goal, with Nylander adding another goal (this time on the power play) at the beginning of the period for the Caps and Fredrik Modin adding a goal for Tampa Bay in the conclusion minutes. During the third period, Bondra scored another goal three minutes into the period, while Dave Andreychuk scored Tampa’s last goal about halfway through the period. Capitals forward Mike Grier added an empty-net goal en route to a commanding 6-3 victory, and a 2-0 series lead.

With a 2-0 series lead and getting those two wins on the road, the Caps looked to be in a great position to win the series, given that they were returning home to their own arena and home ice advantage. However, the Lightning had other plans. Due to a peculiarity of the schedule, Games 3 and 4 were a back-to-back set of games and were played on April 15 and April 16.  The odd scheduling turned out to be a doomed one for the older, slower Capitals.

In Game 3, both teams would trade goals during each period, with Tampa scoring first in the period and the Caps answering back, with Vincent Lecavalier, Prospal, and Martin St. Louis netting goals for the Bolts, while forward Dainius Zubrus (two goals) and defenseman Brendan Witt scored for the Caps. Less than three minutes into the overtime period, Lecavalier scored the game-winner after the Caps put the Lightning on the power play; more specifically, a 5-on-3 power play that came as a result of Jagr being penalized for roughing and defenseman Ken Klee penalized for elbowing.

Game 4 (played on April 16) turned into another victory for the Lightning.  St. Louis scored about halfway through the first period to give the Bolts an early 1-0 lead. Bondra would score the equalizer less than four minutes later to knot the score at one apiece. St. Louis would respond on a shorthanded goal to put the Lightning ahead yet again.  Lecavalier added a third goal for Tampa Bay en route to a 3-1 win.

The two teams returned to Tampa Bay for Game 5 on April 18. Prospal scored a power play goal in the first period to stake the Lightning to a first period lead. During the second period, Nylander scored the equalizer with three minutes left in the middle frame. St. Louis scored the game-winner about twelve minutes into the third period to give the Bolts a 3-2 lead in a series in which they had once been in a 2-0 hole.

Game 6 took place on April 20 in Washington. This time, it would be Washington who struck early, this time on a power play goal by Bondra. Andreychuk evened up the score with about four minutes left in the second period, which would prove to be the final goal of regulation as the game proceeded to overtime and then to double overtime. About four minutes into the third overtime, St. Louis scored yet another game-winning on a power play goal, giving the Lightning their first playoff series win in franchise history.

What’s Different this time around?

Given that series loss in their history, the Caps cannot afford to become complacent when leading a series two games to none, even when winning the first two games on the road. Historically, the Caps have lost more series than they have won in which they held a 2-0 series edge, including that Tampa Bay series in 2003, a first round series loss to the New York Islanders in 1985, a first round series loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992, a first round series loss to the Penguins in 1996, a second round series loss to the Penguins in 2009, and a first round series loss to the New York Rangers in 2013.

But there are other indicators that could work in the Capitals’ favor in their series against Tampa Bay this year as opposed to 2003. In their 4-2 win on Friday, May 11, the Caps had 32 shots on goal, while holding the Lightning to 21. In their 6-2 win on Sunday, May 13, the Caps had 37 shots on goal compared to 35 for the Lightning.

In the 2003 series, the Capitals put 22 shots on goal to Tampa Bay’s 28 shots in the first game. Capitals goaltender Olaf Kolzig outplayed Nikolai Khabibulin in that game and in the second game, the Caps had 30 shots while Tampa Bay had 43 shots. Once again, Kolzig outplayed Khabibulin.  In other words, Tampa Bay had outshot the Caps in the first two games of that series despite being outscored.  When Khabibulin started performing better in the later games of the series, Tampa Bay won those games.  In contrast, in this year’s playoffs, the Caps significantly outshot Tampa Bay in their first win but only outshot them by two shots in the second one.

By Diane Doyle

For Further Reading
Ghosts of Playoffs Past: Past Playoff History
Capitals Ground Lightning 4-2, Take 1-0 Series Lead
Capitals Blast Lightning 6-2, Take 2-0 Series Back to Washington
Road Warriors: Capitals have Dominated this Postseason Away from DC

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
This entry was posted in History, News, NHL, Playoffs, Teams, Washington Capitals and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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