by Jon Jordan on 04/28/11 at 01:21 AM ET
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.
Tampa Bay went through quite the evolution process this year as well, albeit in much different fashion than their Southeast rivals. The Lightning, in year one under general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Guy Boucher, improved by 23 points in the standings over their performance of a year ago and now have advanced to the second round of playoffs for the first time since their Stanley Cup-winning season of 2004. A playoff berth alone would have been dubbed significant progress for an organization that largely wallowed in misery in recent seasons; a first-round win a giant step forward, undoubtedly. But this group has preached a “seize the moment” mantra and has grand plans for their ultimate playoff destiny.
Both the Lightning and Capitals will hit the second round riding high on confidence, with Washington living up to expectations in making short work of the Rangers and Tampa Bay clawing all the way back to best Pittsburgh after falling behind 3-1
Many will wonder what kind of toll the tightly-contested seven game series took on the Lightning and that’s a point that will only be refuted with on-ice evidence to the contrary. But mentally, Boucher resetting the minds of his players, so to speak, is as safe a bet as there is. He’ll give them tonight (maybe) to enjoy their series win but the Bolts are already en route to Washington and their coach is surely already breaking down opposition tactics and customizing Tampa Bay’s strategy for the next task at hand.
Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau may have a club with some added rest on its side but, to handle the Lightning, he’ll have to have as focused and determined a bunch as possible as well, as his upcoming adversary is the prototypical all-hands-on-deck, workmanlike crew.
Of course, Boudreau and the Capitals know this as well as anyone, having faced the Lightning six times during the regular season, and they enjoyed significant success, going 4-1-1 against the Bolts.
But the regular season is just that.
With each of these teams a step closer to the ultimate goal, regular season records have long-since been tossed.
And Friday night in Washington, the only series between the Lightning and Capitals that will matter in the grand scheme of things gets underway.
Can the Capitals step things up to the necessary level to get past a scrappy Bolts team that handles adversity admirably well?
The Lightning had to fight tooth, nail and whatever else to prevail over a Crosby and Malkin-less Penguins bunch. Will they be able to step it up and stymie Ovechkin, Semin and company?
We’ll serve up an official prediction tomorrow.
Also tomorrow, a final look back at game seven and the entire Pittsburgh/Tampa Bay series, including one last check-in with FromThePoint.com‘s Brian Metzer for his take.
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