And here we are in the rarefied air of the NHL's version of the final four. For the Washington Capitals, it is the first trip to the conference final in 20 years and just the third such trip in 43 seasons. Given the prospects this team were given at the start of the season, one could say that it is playing with house money at this point, that any more success would be gravy. House money? Gravy? Save it. This club does seem to be of a different breed than any over those last 20 years, but the opponent in the conference final poses a new set of challenges that will be difficult to overcome.
Washington Capitals (49-26-7)
Tampa Bay Lightning (54-23-5)
Then and Now
Once upon a time, these teams shared a common division address, the “Southeast Division.” Often derided as the "Southleast" Division, the weakest division in the NHL over the 15 years it existed, from 1998-1999 through 2012-2013, it was a division that the Caps dominated, winning the division title seven times. Part of the Caps’ domination of the division was its record against the Tampa Bay Lightning, against which they were 53-21-8 with one tie over the years of the Southeast.
Since the league realigned for the 2013-2014 season, though, fortunes changed for the Lightning. In five seasons in the Atlantic Division, Tampa Bay is 238-135-37, those 238 wins being fifth highest in the league over those five regular seasons. This year, the Lightning reached the conference final for the third time in the last four seasons after posting a franchise record for wins in a regular season (54).
The change in division address and time have not changed the Caps' dominance of the Lightning. Since the league reorganized its divisions in 2013-2014, the Caps to the Metropolitan and the Lightning to the Atlantic, the Caps have a 10-2-3 record against the Lightning in the regular season. And over those same five years, those in which the Lightning have the fifth-highest win total in the league, the Caps have the most wins (243).
Here is a summary of the 2017-2018 season series…
And here is the scoring detail for the two clubs in their series this season…
How Caps of you to notice…
Since the Capitals last went to a conference final, in 1998 on their way to the Stanley Cup final, 25 different teams have reached a conference final. With the Nashville Predators/Winnipeg Jets series still underway, the Caps avoided having a 26th team – Winnipeg – eligible for a conference final before they secured their position (had the Jets ended that series in five or fewer games). Nineteen of those teams have been to multiple conference finals, and three of them have made at least five appearances in the third round (Pittsburgh (6), Anaheim (5), and Chicago (5)).
How Caps of you to notice II…
The last time that the Caps clinched a berth in a conference final was when they beat the Ottawa Senators in Game 6 of their conference semifinal series on May 15, 1998. The number one song in the U.S. on that date was “Too Close” by Next. Nope, don’t remember that. What you might remember, though, was that the finale of the TV series “Seinfeld” aired on the previous night.
Feeling old, are we?
The Caps have never, ever beaten the Tampa Bay Lightning in a playoff series. Okay, they’ve only met twice, the Bolts winning in six games in 2003 and then sweeping the Caps in 2011.
Never Ever II
The Caps have never beaten the Lightning in a playoff series game on home ice. That’s right, not once. The Caps swept two games in Tampa to open their 2003 series, and then they lost four in a row, three of them on home ice, two of them in overtime, including the famous Easter Sunday three-overtime game that the Lightning won to clinch that series. In 2011, the Caps lost both games on home ice to open the series, and then they lost two in Tampa in the Lightning sweep.
It just doesn’t matter…
The Caps went 1-1-1 against the Lightning in the regular season. However, all three of those meetings took place before the trading deadline, and two of them took place before the end of Thanksgiving weekend.
Singing for the Unsung
In Round 1 we had Tom Wilson, and in Round 2 we had Chandler Stephenson. We will go out on a limb here and say Brooks Orpik. Tampa Bay will test the Caps like neither the Columbus Blue Jackets nor Pittsburgh Penguins could, and that is with their scoring depth. Ten Lightning forwards have goals in this postseason, and 11 have points. There will be no hiding anyone against this team. And that brings us to Orpik. No Capital has more experience in conference finals than Orpik, who has appeared in 13 conference final games in his career, all of them with Pittsburgh. That’s the good news. The bad news is, one hopes he has a good memory. The last of those conference final games was played in 2013. And, lest we forget, Orpik is not – and is unlikely to be – much of an offensive contributor. In those previous 13 conference games, Orpik has one point, an assist in the conference final against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008. For Orpik, it will be about what you don’t see – red lights going on behind Braden Holtby in goal. If he is effective in his end, the Caps’ chances in this series improve dramatically.
And who might that be for Tampa Bay?
Eleven Lightning forwards have dressed for all ten games in the postseason. Only one does not have a point. Caps fans know him all too well. Chris Kunitz is but a shell of the player he was in his best years as a Pittsburgh Penguin tormenting the Caps in the postseason, and the Lightning might be hoping he has one more agitation cycle left in the wash. Kunitz has faced the Caps 20 times in the postseason, all of it as a Penguin, and he takes a scoring line of 1-9-10, plus-5 in those 20 games into this series. But his contributions might, as they are likely to be for Brooks Orpik, of a sort not captured in the offensive statistics. His ability to ruffle, disturb, agitate, and disrupt could be as valuable in upsetting any rhythm or pace the Caps might want to establish as the scoring contributions of a Nikita Kucherov or a Brayden Point, or a Steven Stamkos. And, if he does contribute any offense, it would put the Caps’ hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup final in considerable jeopardy.
Specialty of the House
The Capitals and the Lightning resemble one another on special teams in the postseason. Their respective power plays have been formidable, the Caps ranked second overall (30.9 percent) and the Lightning ranked fourth (26.3 percent). The penalty kill? Not so much. Washington is ranked eighth among the 16 teams that started the playoffs (79.1 percent), and the Lightning rank 11th (74.2 percent).
For both teams it is a continuation of the patterns they established in the regular season. The Caps finished the regular season seventh in power play efficiency (22.5 percent) but were fourth overall in the 2018 portion of the season (25.6 percent). For the Caps, it mattered. Washington was 29-7-3 when scoring at least one power play goal, but they were just 20-19-4 when shut out on the man advantage. The Lightning were solid all year with the man advantage, finishing third overall on the power play (23.9 percent). However, there was a drop-off in the 2018 portion of the season, over which the Lightning were 14th on the power play (22.0 percent).
Both teams struggled on the penalty kill, but for Tampa Bay the numbers are a bit more ominous. Only three teams were shorthanded more frequently than the Lightning in the regular season, and only two – Calgary and Dallas – were shorthanded more often in the 2018 portion of the season. Neither qualified for the playoffs. Tampa has been much more disciplined in the postseason, ranking seventh in times shorthanded, but it might be something to watch.
On this score, the Caps are something of a photo-negative of the Lightning. No team in the postseason has been shorthanded more frequently than the Caps, although on a per-game basis San Jose and Vegas have been shorthanded more frequently. It has contributed to their allowing power play goals in multiples. Four time so far in this postseason the Caps allowed two power play goals in a game, losing three of them, two of them in overtime. On the other hand, Washington is 6-1 in games in which they did not allow a power play goal
You have to be this tall to ride this ride
The Capitals have had an unexpectedly significant contribution from rookies in the postseason, especially in the second round against Pittsburgh. No team has dressed more rookies in the postseason so far than the Caps (seven). As a group, they are 4-9-13. Five of the seven have points, and two of them – Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana – are in the top ten among rookies in points in the postseason, tied for fifth with five apiece. Vrana leads all rookies in game-winning goals (two). These contributions might be the most unexpected, not to mention pleasant development of the postseason for the Caps.
Tampa Bay has not lacked for rookie contributions, either. Not so much with quantity, but with quality. Only three rookies have dressed for the postseason for the Lightning, but Yanni Gourde, Mikhail Sergachev, and Anthony Cirelli all have appeared in all ten games for the Bolts so far and are a combined 5-7-12 in scoring. Gourde (2-4-6) is tied for third in rookie scoring in the postseason and has a game-winning goal to his credit. The contributions of Gourde and Sergachev might have been expected, given their regular season performances (Gourde had 25 goals and 64 points; Sergachev was 9-31-40). Cirelli has been a bit of a late-season bloomer, going 5-6-11 in 18 regular season games before posting a goal and an assist so far in the postseason.
The Tender Mercies of ‘Tender Tendencies
In Round 2, we opined that the series would turn on the play of Braden Holtby. Only Marc-Andre Fleury, among goalies playing at least three games, had a better save percentage in the second round (.934) than Holtby (.921), and his even strength save percentage was a stout .931, quite good against a club with as much offensive skill as the Penguins. Holtby will have to maintain this level of performance if the Caps are to advance further. It could prove a challenge. He has not faced Tampa Bay in the postseason, so there is only his regular season record against the Lightning to draw direct comparisons. It is a decent, but not extraordinary record. In 16 career appearances against the Lightning, Holtby is 9-3-2, 2.75, .910, with two shutouts. However, Holtby is putting together quite a run after struggling late in the season. In his last 15 appearances, including 11 in the playoffs, he is 11-4-0. 2.17, .925.
At the other end of the ice, Andrei Vasilevskiy seems to have broken through a wall of fatigue that plagued his game late in the season. He was largely carried by the offense down the stretch of the regular season. Posting a win-loss record in his last 12 appearances of 7-5-0, his goals against average (3.85) and save percentage (.887) were worrisome. However, Vasilevskiy has been a brick wall in the postseason, especially at even strength. His .943 save percentage at evens is second best among goalies dressing for at least five games. It isn’t a fluke. Over the last three postseasons (in two of which Vasilevskiy participated), he has the fourth-best even strength save percentage among 21 goalies appearing in at least ten games (.935) and the fourth-best save percentage overall (.926).
We are in uncharted territory for Caps head coach Barry Trotz, who is making his first appearance in a conference final in his 19th NHL season as a head coach and his 11th trip to the postseason. This is, in fact, the deepest Trotz has gone with any club since he coached the AHL Portland Pirates to the Calder Cup final in 1996 (he won a Calder Cup championship with the Pirates in 1994, his only coaching championship and the only other time he went past the second round in a postseason). This season, though, has been different, with just about every pull on the slot machine hitting the jackpot. His navigating the absences of top-six forwards for a large portion of the Pittsburgh series in Round 2 was impressive, including taking a hammer to his own decision to replace the suspended Tom Wilson with Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line in favor of Jakub Vrana.
As for Jon Cooper, he brings the second-longest tenure with one club into this series. Only Joel Quenneville with the Chicago Blackhawks has been with his current team longer than Cooper, who is in his sixth season with the Lightning (he coached the last 16 games for Tampa Bay in 2012-2013). He has the second-best regular season winning percentage among active coaches (.617), trailing only Bruce Boudreau (.654). In five full seasons behind the Lightning bench he has the four winningest seasons in franchise history (46 wins in 2013-2014 and 2015-2016, 50 wins in 2014-2015, and 54 wins this season). His postseason winning percentage does not quite keep pace, but it is still impressive (33-24/.579), fourth-best among active coaches. This is his third trip to a conference final, reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2015.
The Caps will win if…
The Caps will win if they can play with structure and discipline. If they get outside their lanes and start to freelance or do too much individually, they will end up chasing the Lightning around the rink. At that point, the Lightning’s depth and balance will have the advantage. For the Caps this will be a test of structure and system over talent and depth. The Caps did a fine job of frustrating the Penguins in Round 2, all but shutting out their bottom six from making any impact. Tampa is deeper, though, and the Caps will face a stiffer challenge in sticking closely to a game plan.
The Lightning will win if…
They can figure out a way to kill penalties. Their penalty killing unit was one of the worst in the league in the regular season, finishing 28th (76.1 percent), second-worst of any playoff qualifier (Philadephia was 29th at 75.8 percent). They have hardly been better in the postseason. In fact, they have been worse at 74.2 percent, 11th of the 16 playoff teams and worst of the remaining clubs. It matters. Including playoff games, the Lightning are 30-10 (including three extra time losses) when shutting out opponents on the power play this season. When allowing at least one power play goal, they are 32-20 (including two extra time losses). They have allowed at least one power play goal in seven of ten postseason games so far.
In the end…
One might get the feeling that the Capitals are the skunk at the final four garden party. Any of the other four clubs still alive (pending the Game 7 between Nashville and Winnipeg on Thursday night) are, quite reasonably, viewed as worthy Stanley Cup final participants. The Caps? This team, clearly inferior on paper to last year’s team and the team from the year before that, are pretenders, poseurs, dark horses at best. Tampa Bay has too much firepower, too much depth, too much Kucherov and Stamkos, too much Hedman and Vasilevskiy for the Caps. The Lightning might win this series in three games, on paper.
Or so the thinking in some quarters goes. But this team has found a way to conquer Columbus, a gritty team with a powerful work ethic, and to prevail against the Penguins, a speedy team of skill and championship mettle. Tampa Bay poses another challenge and a third profile, experienced, deep, and physical. They might be a combination of the two teams that the Caps have faced so far, and that combination putting together the best aspects of the Penguins and Blue Jackets. It makes for a challenge, but challenges present opportunities, too. The opportunity here is to advance to the second Stanley Cup final in franchise history. This club seems better at keeping that goal in the frame much better than any of their recent predecessors.
Capitals in six