The Tampa Bay Lightning pushed division rival Washington all year, perhaps forcing the division champs to elevate their game to a level they wouldn’t have reached themselves, regardless of the regular season success they’ve enjoyed in four straight seasons.
Now, as Tampa Bay’s push has continued into the second round of the playoffs, where they currently lead Washington 2-0, it’s as simple as the Capitals having no other choice but to push back – if they even have it in them.
It’s beyond gut-check time for the Caps, the perennial postseason underachievers who now head to Tampa in quite the hole, up against a Lightning squad that has exhibited incredible resolve and team commitment, not only of late in the playoffs, but all year long.
They did so again last night, without key contributors up front and on defense, with forward Simon Gagne and defenseman Pavel Kubina both lost to probable concussions in game one. Lo and behold, a replacement Jones for each hobbled player stepped in adeptly in the game two win. Forward Blair had a momentum-changing quick shift in overtime just before Vincent Lecavalier’s game-winner and defenseman Randy made the breakout pass to Teddy Purcell that led directly to the decisive score.
But that’s just it about the Lightning – one guy goes down to injury or, at times, doesn’t play well and another steps up – or, in this case, two.
On the Washington side of things? To this point, not so much.
You could point to the fact that the Washington Capitals took four of the six regular season meetings with the Tampa Bay Lightning this season.
Or that the Lightning are riding all kinds of momentum after a stunning comeback from a 3-1 deficit to the Pittsburgh Penguins in round one.
You could argue that the Caps will be relieved to simply be out of the first round after last year’s disappointing early exit amid lofty expectations.
Or that the Bolts are wiped after a seven-game grind.
But I’d just as soon put all of that – all of it – aside leading up to a series that will yield one of two potentially axis-shifting results:
The reloaded Lightning, stabilized by new ownership and one of the most-respected names in NHL history running the front office and steered by a blossoming mastermind coach, extending the ultimate one-year turnaround into a shot at a conference championship – and a step away from the grandest prize of all – just like that.
Or the regular season stalwart Capitals, finally living up to their billing as a bona fide contender, knocking not one but two playoff rounds out of the way – two more than many expected – inching closer to cementing their names in history and cementing the mouths of herds of detractors.
Well, that was some ride, wasn’t it? It was only fitting to end things with a 1-0, game seven thriller to cap a largely unpredictable series and a stunning comeback for the Tampa Bay Lightning. As we said several times throughout, this series had just about everything.
Kudos to the Pittsburgh Penguins for an outstanding season and an amazing will to fight through all kinds of adversity. There’s no doubt in my mind that, with Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin in that lineup, this one wouldn’t have ended up going Tampa’s way. But, in the end, it did and now the Bolts are off to the Eastern Conference Semifinals and a date with division rival Washington for a berth in the Conference Final.
Before we get to that, the Pens/Lightning series is worth one final reflection, at least and, after Metz tackles the unenviable task of accounting for what went wrong down Pittsburgh way, I’ll jump back in to hash out a handful of things that the Bolts did right:
Metz on the ousted Penguins:
Jon and I knew that this series wouldn’t go on forever and that one of our teams would have to head home for the summer. We also talked openly of wishing that each of the teams could move on, as the series was damn entertaining and we have been enjoying the heck out of our collaboration. But, as is the case with most team sports, there is no “alright, we both win” situations and it is I that has been put in the unenviable position (as JJ said in his lead in) of explaining why YOUR Pittsburgh Penguins are hitting the links as we speak. (Well, maybe not yet, considering they have their final clean-up day tomorrow… but Saturday? It’s on!)
Though the Penguins had what some would call a stranglehold on the series having taken a 3-1 lead through four games, it really wasn’t that tight of a death grip. Anyone who had been watching the series realized that the Penguins had shown plenty of Achilles heels during those first four games. The biggest of which was their inability to score goals.
The AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs began with three affiliates of the NHL’s Southeast Division and that number was destined to shrink by at least one with Hershey and Charlotte squaring off in the opening round.
Unfortunately, the Carolina Hurricanes are the lone remaining Southeast Division squad with an AHL affiliate still vying for the Calder Cup, as the Checkers bested the Hershey Bears four games to two, while the Norfolk Admirals also fell in six games, despite a 2-0 series lead, to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Here’s a stat line look at the games played since we last checked in and some heres and theres on the AHL playoffs thus far, as well as a look ahead at Charlotte’s schedule this week, as they get set to take on Wilkes-Barre in the East Division Final.
Click for individual box scores
Tuesday, 4/19/11: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins 2, Norfolk Admirals 1
Norfolk goal-scorers: Stefano Giliati (1)
Norfolk goaltenders (saves/shots): Dustin Tokarski (23/25)
Three stars of the game: 1 – Bryan Lerg, WBS; 2 – Stefano Giliati, NOR; 3 – Dustin Tokarski, NOR
Early this season, the point was made, after the Tampa Bay Lightning had fallen twice in Washington to the Capitals by a combined score of 12-3, that the Caps were still the kings of the Southeast Division until someone unseated them.
The Lightning’s run at the division crown fell short this year, as Washington hit their stride in the second half of the season, shot past Tampa Bay and captured their fourth straight Southeast championship.
But none of that matters now, with these two teams set to lock horns in an Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup that will automatically elevate an already brewing rivalry to the next level, with a berth in the conference final at stake.
Washington, having disposed of the New York Rangers in five games, evolved as a team this season, adopting a more well-rounded approach while ditching their high-flying show of offense in years past. Even so, the Caps are still a team that can come heavy with the firepower when the need arises. After the first-round disappointment of a year ago, getting out of the quarterfinal round was a huge first step for a talent-heavy team that has its eyes on hockey’s ultimate prize.
And the Southeast Division officially has a heated rivalry.
Mark that down.
Guess I’ll be staying busy for a while here…
Check back in soon.
He Asked, I Answered, Round 6: On the Perceived Existence of Momentum, a Game 7 Forecast & Much More
Last night, I posted the final set of answers from Brian Metzer of FromThePoint.com to my questions after the huge game six win for the Tampa Bay Lightning that has pushed this epic series to where it deserves to be, in my opinion: A true must-win for both sides in what should be a classic game seven.
Today, we’ll visit the flip-side one last time, with my responses to his most recent inquiries. This one forced me to think extensively, including a reversal of my original prediction for the series, partially by force (can’t well end in six now, can it?) and partially because I’ve bought in to what one team is selling (spoiler there?) Anywho… Read on:
BM: It is pretty obvious that the Lightning are carrying a significant amount of momentum into Game 7, however the Penguins have a good bit of experience when it comes to clinching in those emotional, pressure packed games. One need only look at their Stanley Cup run in 2009 to see that, as they won huge Game 7s against both the Capitals and Red Wings en route to winning it all. Do you think that the wave of momentum that the Lightning is riding is enough to overcome the Penguins perceived experience advantage in Game 7s?
JJ: I will start to answer this by letting you know of what I am absolutely, positively, 100% certain, having watched this team as closely as I have under Guy Boucher. They will treat game seven as nothing more than their next task at hand. Their coach doesn’t allow for anything else.
As we head toward the conclusion of the Pittsburgh/Tampa Bay quarterfinal series in game seven on Wednesday, we’re also nearing the end of a series-long collaboration between myself and FromThePoint.com’s Brian Metzer. It’s been a blast on my end and an honor to finally work together with Metz on a project, after years of knowing the guy professionally and respecting the hell out of what he’s done both on his own and for multiple other media outlets. I’m sure we’ll get together once more after game seven is in the history books but, in case that leaves me on Silly Street, mentally, and I forget to make mention of what a treat this has been, well, there… At least I know that’s taken care of…
For now, here are Metz’s answers to my latest round of questions after the Bolts knotted things up last night. I expect to give my response to his most recent queries soon as well.
JJ: You and I both knew this was going to be a tightly-contested series and, while neither of us had it going seven, we knew it had that potential. Wednesday should be a doozy. That said, looking ahead, what on Earth are we supposed to expect?
With a gritty 4-2 win in game six at home tonight, the Tampa Bay Lightning have made a game seven date with the Pittsburgh Penguins, for a spot in the conference semifinals – or a spot on the first tee.
Fitting that this one’s going the distance, really.
Most of us had this pegged as a close series from the get-go and it has certainly been that. But it’s also had just about everything – almost precisely on a game-by-game basis, making game seven about as unpredictable as they come, despite the perceived momentum in Tampa Bay’s corner after staving off elimination twice in a row.
Game 1: Marc-Andre Fleury shuts out the Bolts, prompting questions (and some media-induced panic) about how to beat him.
Game 2: Tampa Bay is sparked by an early goal from defenseman Eric Brewer and break out offensively in a 5-1 win.
Game 3: The Bolts come out flying (perhaps a little too much) and the experienced Pens take advantage of mistakes to go up 2-0. The Lightning rally back to tie but Pittsburgh breaks their hearts just seconds later.
Game 4: Perhaps overadjusting from the previous game’s overaggression, Tampa looks awfully dead, especially for a playoff game, in the early-going. The Pens go up a deuce again but the Bolts rally back to force overtime. Two extra periods in, James Neal sneaks one past Dwayne Roloson and the series is 3-1 Penguins.
Game 5: Facing elimination, the Lightning buck some serious odds, not by winning so much, but by blowing the Pens out of their own barn, 8-2. Perhaps most importantly in this one, Steven Stamkos finally finds the back of the net for Tampa – twice.
Game 6: Tampa Bay lives to fight another day yet again, thanks this time to a bevy of role players contributing offensively and, namely, Steve Downie, who in my opinion had his best game as a professional.
Some final thoughts tonight on yesterday’s game five blowout win for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who pulled within a single win of evening things up with the Pittsburgh Penguins and sending this back-and-forth, wildly unpredictable series (that happens to be going about as I had, um, predicted thus far, oddly enough) to what would no doubt be an epic game seven.
Before that can happen, the Pens and Bolts will square off once again in my neck of the woods tomorrow night for game six at the St. Pete Times Forum.
And before that can happen, of course, I had to check in with my main man, Brian Metzer once again, for this particular Pittsburgh insider’s take on the 8-2 drubbing on Saturday and where things MIGHT be headed from here…
JJ: So, we’re one Pittsburgh win away from my series prediction being dead-on. After getting pasted 8-2, however, how confident do you think this Pens bunch is? I mean, they’re still in the driver’s seat and all, needing just one win in the two remaining games to move one, but that was some beat-down (and on home ice, no less). This group is so full of professionals, they’ll know to put it behind them but, one would have to think, there have to be some bruised egos in that room…
BM: It is worth noting that we both look like hockey prognosticating gods! Six games was the direction we each went and it looks like we could see that go down.
Though this Penguins team was a bit shell shocked by what happened on Saturday afternoon, I am not sure the egos are bruised as much at the attitudes have gone surely. They realize that they allowed the Lightning a big time reprieve and aren’t happy about it.