Kukla's Korner

Lightning Pushed Capitals in the Regular Season: Can They Push Them Out of the Playoffs?

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.

Before the start of this season, I was adamant about the Caps needing an external push – true competition within their division – to bring out the absolute competitive best before the playoffs hit. Part of Washington’s problem, by my theory, was the impossible task of delivering playoff-level intensity and drive after a relative breeze of a regular season proving to be, well, impossible. Now, having had to fight through some real adversity during the year and fending off the Lightning to capture their fourth straight division title, the Capitals have risen to that significant occasion already, conquered that formidable challenge, and followed it up by not suffering a letdown in the quarterfinals against the New York Rangers.

As the trade deadline approached, another outside push seemed a good fit for the Caps, by way of a player acquisition. Washington appeared every bit the team in need of an outside voice to both let them know how good they could – and, perhaps, should – be and to lead by example, having reached the pinnacle of the sport earlier in his career. Jason Arnott filled that need perfectly for the Capitals and his true value to this club will only now begin to be measured.

But the Lightning won’t be at all intimidated by a team that feels a Cup run is its destiny. Having defied the odds by coming back to oust Pittsburgh, whether there is any round-to-round momentum or not, their confidence cannot be questioned, nor can their resolve.

This Bolts bunch has bought into a rally cry of “seize the moment” – and why not? After all, nothing in sports – or in life – is guaranteed and, as multiple Lightning players have stated since securing a playoff berth, you never know when you might get this chance again.

They are not to be overlooked.

There’s a feeling brewing in me, when I consider the ins and outs of this series – one that pulls me away from breaking down special teams success on both sides, the major discrepancy in experience in opposing creases or any specific strategy on either side – that has me focusing more on intangibles.

Is it Washington’s time?

Or does Tampa rip that right out from under them?

Wouldn’t it be something if the very team that gave the Caps the exact regular season push they seemed so badly to need taught them such a stern lesson?

There’s something to that, I think. Or at least there could be.

One way or another, the winner of this series comes out looking awfully dangerous. Neither Philadelphia nor Boston does as much for me…

In the end, and since I picked them to win the Cup from the get-go, I have to give the nod to Washington, having answered the bell of a legitimate threat within the division during the season and conquering the mental test of avoiding another first round exit.

But this series will not be one-sided.

There’s genuine dislike between the clubs that goes back a few years, supreme talent on each side and soaring confidence inside both rooms. That all gets magnified with so much on the line.

The Lightning have shown the kind of commitment to the cause and ability to withstand adversity necessary for an extended playoff run. Washington would be wise not to discount this club, in any sense.

And they won’t.

They can’t.

They have to have learned from the heartache of a year ago – heartache that would be even worse this year, make no mistake, should they fall to Tampa in the semis, even if it is a round beyond last year’s exit.

And I believe that they have.

While the Lightning, driven by the heart and soul of Hart Trophy finalist Martin St. Louis, will give them everything they can handle, and absolutely have it in them to advance to the conference final and beyond, the Capitals are up for this latest challenge.

We’re about to see them become what they’re supposed to be – a Stanley Cup contender.

Washington in six

***

Remember, Tampa friends: I picked Pittsburgh in six in the quarters too. (You don’t want me picking the Lightning!)

***

Elsewhere, my other second round predictions (after an unspectacular 5-3 record in round one):

Bruins in six: Goaltending. Period. Stick with something, Philly. And Brian Boucher is not the answer.
Canucks in five: Congrats on the second round, Preds. Take the next step next year. Vancouver ousting Chicago was such a monumental step.
Detroit in seven: They’re the Red Wings. And the Sharks are the Sharks. There’s disappointing looming eventually, of course.

JJ
jj@kuklaskorner.com
JJ on Twitter

Filed in: Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, | Beasts of the Southeast | Permalink
 

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