The Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning have not played in the same division in years and see each other three times a season out of 82 games. They might go months at a time without playing.
That hasn’t stopped the development of one of hockey’s best rivalries. Because the Capitals and Lightning have met three times in the playoffs over the past 16 seasons and because they have spent so much time near the top of the NHL’s standings in recent years, their games always have extra juice.
So it is again today at Capital One Arena when Washington hosts Tampa Bay in a post-Thanksgiving 5 p.m. game, their first matchup of the season.
Just go by this decade alone. The Capitals have 933 total standings points, which is second-best in the league since the 2010-11 season. Tampa Bay has 894, which is fifth.
The Capitals have been around much longer. They are playing their 44thseason. The Lightning were an expansion team in 1992-93 and are in their 26th. Both have won the Stanley Cup. Tampa Bay did it in 2004 with a memorable Game 7 win against the Calgary Flames to cement hockey’s popularity in the city.
Washington had to wait until 2018 when its Cup win over the Vegas Golden Knights began one of the great parties in the District’s history.
But the seeds of both championships are in the Stanley Cup playoff series the two teams have played. The Lightning first realized how good they could become when they rallied from 2-0 down in a 2003 first-round series to eliminate the Capitals.
That Tampa Bay team, led by captain Dave Andreychuk and young stars Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, won Game 6 in triple overtime at Capital One Arena and stuck a dagger into the heart of the Capitals, who took one look at their aging roster and decided to blow up the entire thing. Within 10 months almost every good player was gone and they had embarked on a radical rebuild that netted them the draft pick which became Alex Ovechkin.
If they couldn’t even beat Tampa Bay in the playoffs, an expansion team in only its 11thseason, then what was the point? What they didn’t know was that Lightning team was onto something. Yes, it lost in the next round to the eventual Cup champion New Jersey Devils.
But it set the stage for an amazing 2003-04 season. The Lightning won the Southeast Division and easily dispatched the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens in the first two rounds. It took seven games to beat the Philadelphia Flyers for their first Eastern Conference title and seven more in a memorable Stanley Cup Final to win their only championship.
The Lightning faded from the scene for a few years as the roster aged. But they managed to draft star center Steven Stamkos No. 1 overall and they took off again. They beat the Capitals again in 2011 in the second round of the playoffs. That series took just four games and five days to complete. It remains the only time Washington has been swept in its Rock the Red/Ovechkin era.
While the Capitals banged their head against the wall over and over trying to get past the second round, Tampa Bay made the Eastern Conference Final in 2011 and in 2015 reached the Stanley Cup Final again before losing in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks. They made it back to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017 but lost in seven games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It has been a remarkable decade for the Lightning. For the Capitals, it looked like their window was closing. Back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2016 and 2017 only led to crushing losses to the Penguins in the second round. If they couldn’t win a title then, would they ever?
The answer came the next season. Washington outlasted a tough Columbus team in the first round and then finally, finally dispatched the Penguins in the second round. Who awaited them in the Eastern Conference Final? The Lightning, of course. It was their third playoff series and it was a wild one.
The Capitals, unburdened by their win over Pittsburgh, dominated the first two games in Tampa Bay to take a 2-0 series lead but promptly dropped the next two games at home. Tampa Bay stood on the precipice of another Stanley Cup Final appearance after a Game 5 win, but Washington ripped the series away by outscoring the Lightning a combined 7-0 in Games 6 and 7 to win their first Eastern Conference title. They would soon win the biggest prize of all. That first Stanley Cup went through Tampa Bay, their toughest series by far.
And so the rivalry continues. Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby and John Carlson are still at the top of their game and the Capitals are tied for most points in the NHL.
Tampa Bay has started off slow. The Lightning were devastated after their dominant Presidents’ Trophy-winning season last year ended with a stunning first-round sweep to Columbus.
But Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and star winger Nikita Kucherov are all still around. They’re mired in fifth place in the Atlantic Division for now but are only five points out of a playoff spot and once the hangover of last year’s loss subsides they are almost certain to make a run and be a factor in the playoffs again.
Two Stanley Cups. Four Presidents’ Trophies. Stars all over the ice. And a playoff history that has led to championships. It makes for great theatre as one of the NHL’s best rivalries continues this evening.
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