TAMPA, Fla. — The Washington Capitals are in their first conference final in 20 years and the Tampa Bay Lightning are in for the third time in four years.
Will experience be an edge over the motivation of waiting so long to get to this point in the postseason?
“We know what’s coming,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of the heightened attention and greater distractions that come with a deep playoff run. “It’s a whole different feel, because we’ve been there. That’s a good thing.”
Tampa Bay has dispatched New Jersey and Boston in five games each, and Washington has had a more difficult path to this point, rallying from an 0-2 deficit to beat Columbus, then again needing six games to eliminate the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
“If you’re going to have success against really good teams, Pitt, Tampa, anybody going forward, you’ve got to be hard, you’ve got to be detailed, you’ve got to be compact, you’ve got to make good decisions, you’ve got to have an extremely high work ethic and high commitment,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.
Tampa Bay led the NHL in scoring in the regular season and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin led the league in goals with 49, adding another eight in the postseason. If anything, the Lightning beat the Bruins without dominant play from their top scorers, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.
Where does the advantage stand in goaltending? Washington’s Braden Holtby is a former Vezina winner, but he ranked 37th in the NHL in save percentage during the regular season and played a combined 65 games without a shutout. He has played nearly a goal a game better in the playoffs, giving up 2.99 per game during the regular season but just 2.04 in the postseason.
Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy has been sharp, allowing 2.24 goals per game in the playoffs, and tied for the NHL lead in shutouts with eight.
Tampa Bay had a slight edge in the regular season, going 2-1 against Washington, rallying for a 4-3 overtime win in the first week of the season, falling 3-1 in November and winning 4-2 in February. The two were nearly identical on special teams in those games, with Tampa Bay going 3 of 10 on power plays and Washington was 3 of 9.
The Capitals have been unusually strong on the road in the past month, going 5-1 in Columbus and Pittsburgh while just 3-3 on their home ice.
The Lightning pulled away from the Bruins by winning both games in Boston and has both the advantage of home ice and added rest going into this series with Washington.
While Tampa Bay made headlines in the regular season with their high-scoring offense, they separated themselves from Boston with physical play, something that carried over from the opening series with New Jersey.
“We’re not really looked at as that physical team, but we know we have it in us,” Cooper said. “Everyone was on board. Our game plan was to make it hard on them. That’s it. It’s been working for us.”