Lightning Strikes From The Past: Playoff History Between The Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning

Photo: Dirk Shadd | Tampa Bay Times

As the Washington Capitals prepare to meet the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday in their first round robin game to determine playoff seeding, it’s time to take a quick look back at the playoff history between the Caps and Lightning.

The two teams have met just three times in post season action: 2003, when they met in the first round of the playoffs, 2011, when they met in the second round and 2018, when they met in the third round (the Eastern Championship Finals).

2003 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Prior to meeting in the playoffs, the Caps and Lightning spent most of the regular season battling it out for the top spot in the now-defunct Southeast Division, with Tampa Bay ultimately edging out Washington by one point, with a record of 36-25-16 and 93 standings points. Washington went 39-29-8 for 92 standings points. Thus, Tampa Bay earned home ice advantage for the series, the franchise’s second playoff appearance since its inception in the 1992-93 season.

Getty Images

The Caps won the first two games of the series on the road in Tampa Bay by scores of 3-0 and 6-3, but returned home and lost each of the next two games. They lost Game 3 by a score of 4-3, thanks to an overtime goal by Vinnie LeCavalier.  They then lost Game 4 by a 3-1 score.

Returning to Tampa Bay, the Capitals lost again, this time 2-1 in triple Overtime, when Martin St Louis scored the game winner.  Tampa won the series in six games in a series where the Caps had originally led 2 games to none.

LeCavalier and St. Louis were a two man wrecking crew for the Lightning. Tampa went on to the second round and lost to the New Jersey Devils who won the Stanley Cup for the 2003-04 season.

The Caps would not return to the playoffs until the 2007-08 season, after a full rebuild.

Link to Playoff Results of 2002-03 via Hockey Reference
Remembering that Series — Washington Post Article in 2011 

2011 Playoffs

The teams met again eight years later – in Round 2 of the 2011 playoffs. The Caps finished the regular season with a 48-23-11 record for 107 points overall, finishing first in the Southeast Division and holding the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning concluded the regular season with a 46-25-11 record for 103 points overall and a second-place finish in the Southeast Division and a fifth seed in the playoffs.

The Caps finished the 2010-11 season with a 4-1-1 record against Tampa Bay during the regular season. The season series even featured not one but two hat tricks by former Capitals forward Alexander Semin.

As a result of their regular season success, many expected the team to perform well against the Lightning.  However, most of their head-to-head contests were before the Lightning had acquired goalie Dwayne Roloson.

Photo: Washington Post

Prior to the series, the Caps had beaten the New York Rangers in five games, with goalie Michal Neuvirth performing very well in Round 1. The Bolts, meanwhile, had just beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins in a seven-game series.

The series started at home for the Caps. They lost 4-2 in the first game and followed that up two days later by losing the second game, 3-2 in Overtime, thanks to their old nemesis, Vinnie LeCavalier.

So the Caps already had their backs to the wall before even playing in Tampa Bay. There was some optimism that maybe the Caps could avenge their series loss of 2003 by playing opposite roles as that series started with two Caps wins. In addition, Caps fans recalled how they fell down 2-0 in a series against the New York Rangers only two years earlier.

But alas, it was not to be. On successive days in Tampa Bay, they lost Game 3 by a 4-3 score and lost Game 4 by a 5-3 score. They were swept in Round 2 and now out of the playoffs.

Tampa Bay went on to the Eastern Conference Finals and lost a seven-game series to the Boston Bruins, the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

Capitals are swept by Lightning in second round of NHL playoffs
Link to Playoff Results of 2010-11 via Hockey Reference

2018 Playoffs

The teams met once again seven years later in the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2018 playoffs.  The Caps had finished the regular season with a 49-26-7 record for 105 points overall and finished in first place in the Metropolitan Division.  The Lightning had finished the regular season with a 54-23-5 record for 113 points overall, which was first place in the Atlantic Division and the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Prior to the series with the Lightning, the Caps beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games and the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games, despite falling behind 2 games to 0 in the first two games at home.

The Lightning, meanwhile, advanced to the Conference Finals by beating the Boston Bruins in five games and the New Jersey Devils in five games.

The series started out very similar to the series in 2003 where the Caps won the first two games in Florida, the first one by a 4-2 score and the second game by a 6-2 score. Caps fans had reason to feel optimistic. But there was the memory of that earlier series of 2003 when they lost the next two at home and lost the series in six games.

They ended up following the 2003 script for Game 3 and Game 4, losing two games at home by identical 4-2 scores. Nicklas Backstrom returned to the lineup for Game 4 after missing game six against Pittsburgh and the first three games of the Lightning series with broken fingers, but the Caps still lost.

They traveled to Tampa Bay and proceeded to lose 3-2. So, similar to that 2003 series against that same team, they had lost three games after winning the first two. Needless to say, Caps fans were understandably nervous and worried that this series would be one more heartbreaking additions to a history full of postseason heartbreaks.

But the Caps remained calm. They would look to past experience to figure out how to stay alive, as the team had faced plenty of adversity during the regular season and the playoffs. Ovechkin spoke, saying the team had to win two games.

They returned home for Game 6 on May 21. This time, the ending was different than it was in 2003. They won Game 6 by a 3-0 score and forced Game 7.  Goalie Braden Holtby, who had no shutouts during the regular season, shutout Tampa Bay in Game 6.

There was more confidence that the team could go all the way. Now, the Caps returned to Tampa Bay for Game 7 on May 23.  This time, the Caps prevailed 4-0 as Braden Holtby notched his second consecutive shutout. As was the case in the previous two series, the Caps clinched the series winning game on the road.

The Caps had won the Prince of Wales Trophy as the Eastern Conference Champions and would advance to the Stanley Cup Finals where the Las Vegas Knights were waiting.  The Caps went on to win the Stanley Cup Finals in five games.

By Diane Doyle

Further Reading
NoVa Caps: Capitals/Tampa Bay — Ghosts of Playoffs Past
Adversity Fueled the Capitals’ Way to the Finals

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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