The Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning met for the first time since the Conference Final on Saturday. The game resulted in a 6-3 loss for the Caps, but it was very close with Tampa Bay adding two empty-net goals to seal the win. The game certainly felt like a playoff preview going in, and it absolutely did not disappoint.
Would anyone be interested in watching a seven-game series between those two teams based on what we saw Saturday? Yes, please.
The Lightning's offense was as good as advertised and seemed to take Washington by surprise at the start. As good as Tampa Bay was last season, this team is even better. When they set up in the offensive zone, they made a lot of one touch passes that made it nearly impossible for the defense to catch up.
As the game went on, however, you began to see the formula for Washington's success last season. The Caps seemed to wear out the Lightning with a grinding offensive cycle. A poor start to the game and an early turnover in the third period that resulted in a goal were the major differences in this one. Otherwise, it was very even with Washington getting the better of the play as the game went along.
Saturday was the first of three games between the Caps and Lightning to close out the season. It will be fascinating to see how this matchup evolves in the next two games.
Here are a few recent observations and thoughts on the Caps.
♦ One reason the Caps beat the Lightning last season is because of their physical play. Washington just began pushing Tampa Bay around and it had no response. The Lighting were aggressively physical and threw their weight around a bit on Saturday looking to send a message that this year would be different. Here’s the thing though, while Tampa Bay was credited with more hits (33 to 23), I felt the Caps were far more effective with it. Playing physical is not about just laying hits whenever you have the chance, it’s also about wearing an opponent down. That was the major difference in the playoffs and after a bad start, that’s how the Caps nearly came back on Saturday. The early goal in the third period was the killer as it felt like Washington was on the verge of taking the game over.
♦ Tom Wilson’s hit on Mikhail Sergachev was shoulder to shoulder and the only reason there was any reaction to it at all is because the guy who laid the hit was wearing No. 43. This should serve as an important reminder to him. In 2017-18, Wilson was suspended for a hit in the preseason and stayed clean through the entire regular season before getting suspended in the playoffs. If he is not extra careful with his physical play this postseason, the NHL is going to throw the book at him and it is really going to cost the team. Saturday should serve as a reminder to Wilson that the microscope is on him every time he hits anyone.
♦ Alex Ovechkin is two goals away from his eighth 50-goal season with 10 games left to go. If he gets there, he will be only the fourth player to score 50 or more goals at the age of 33 or older joining John Bucyk, Jaromir Jagr and Bobby Hull. Don’t take what you’re watching for granted. This is one of the all-time greats.
♦ Whether the second defensive pairing is being weighed down by Dmitry Orlov or Matt Niskanen is a matter of some debate. To me, it is essentially irrelevant to this point because they both clearly need to play better. You cannot turn the puck over like they did against Tampa Bay and expect to get away with it.
♦ Washington’s playoff lineup looks all but set at this point. The only real position that appears to be up for grabs is fourth line center. I believe Nic Dowd has out-performed Chandler Stephenson this season, but I believe Todd Reirden disagrees with that. I know the team really likes what Stephenson brings to the penalty kill. With his speed, I think he could be a Carl Hagelin type of player, but I have not seen him have that kind of an impact yet.
♦ If you’re looking ahead to playoff opponents the three most likely candidates for the first round are Pittsburgh, Carolina and Columbus. Before the injury to Evgeni Malkin I would have guessed Pittsburgh would finish third with Carolina and Columbus as the two wild cards. Now I am not sure, especially given that the Hurricanes and Penguins still have two more against one another.
Tampa Bay is far and away the top team in the league, but how far behind them are the Caps? Find out here in this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings.
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