The memories are still fresh and they still bring smiles.
The Capitals remember the back-to-back shutouts with their season on the line. They remember the stunned silence as they piled on top of each other in celebration. They remember skating off the ice at Amalie Arena with the Prince of Wales Trophy just one series away from their ultimate goal.
It has been 11 months since Washington rallied to stun the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. They won three games on the road and came back from 3-2 down to take the series. By the end of that intense, emotional two weeks of hockey there was a lot of angry “I’ll get you next year” talk from both sides.
It’s the stuff real, honest-to-goodness, hate-filled rivalries are made of. But the Capitals haven’t seen the Lightning since that Game 7 on May 23. Call it a quirk of the schedule or the NHL smartly setting up two of its marquee teams to play late in the season.
But Washington and Tampa Bay meet for the first time this season on Saturday and play three times in 15 days. The rematch is at Capital One Arena on March 20. When they’re done after the game back at Amalie Arena on March 30 the Stanley Cup playoffs will only be 11 days away from starting.
“Let’s call it a playoff series. Why not?” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “It’s that time of year. I’m sure it’ll have that feel. It’s a good challenge. They’re playing really good hockey. There’s no hiding that. We’re familiar with them so it’ll be good to see what they got.”
The Capitals (42-22-7, 91 points) have had another fine season, especially as they deal with the emotional hangover of that Stanley Cup win that went through Tampa. They shook off a seven-game losing streak in January. They are in first place in the Metropolitan Division. They will almost certainly be a playoff team again.
The Lightning, however, have taken things to an entirely different level. Tampa Bay (54-13-4, 112 points) has the best record in the NHL and it isn’t close with an 18-point lead over the San Jose Sharks (94). They have already clinched a playoff spot. They will easily win the Atlantic Division and the Presidents’ Trophy, too. It is a veteran, tested squad and anything less than a Cup is a failure. Sound familiar?
“We’re going to have to go through them if we’re going to do it again. I think it’s a measuring stick for them, too,” said Capitals forward Brett Connolly, who began his career with the Lightning. “We played them hard. It was an amazing series. They have that one circled on the calendar, too, I bet. Knowing those guys. I played with all of them. Very committed group and very determined and a lot of guys who are very eager to win a championship there. There’s no secret.”
It’s also no secret the pressure they labor under. Washington finally broke through last year after years of heartbreak. Three times in eight years the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy (2010, 2016, 2017) and three times didn’t make it out of the second round. They only played for the Cup once (1998).
Tampa Bay as an organization doesn’t have that decades-long history. It won a Stanley Cup in 2004, after all. But this group, led by captain Steven Stamkos and the breathtakingly talented Nikita Kucherov, the clear favorite for the Hart Trophy as NHL most valuable player with a league-leading 115 points, hasn’t cemented its own legacy.
The Lightning lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and three other times (2011, 2016, 2018) have lost in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. They could clinch the Presidents’ Trophy by next week. They even still have an outside shot at the NHL points record held by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens (132), though it would take a 10-1-0 finish to match it. Yet nothing matters to the Lightning other than a Cup.
Only one team in NHL history has clinched a playoff spot faster: The 2009-10 Capitals. And that group lost in the first round to the No. 8 seed Canadiens. That crushing defeat left the organization devastated for years.
“We’ve been in that situation before and we know that it doesn’t come easy,” Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. “We’re excited to get there and test ourselves because it’s going to be a good hockey game. It was a good series last year and they’ll be looking forward to playing us too. We’re just excited to play a game that’s similar to playoff hockey.”
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