The series: #5 Tampa Bay Lightning (46-25-11, 103 points) vs. #1 Washington Capitals (48-23-11, 107 points)
Regular season: Washington beat their Southeast Division rivals four times. What’s troubling for fans in the sunny south is that during the six games, Tampa Bay’s eighth ranked offence was outscored 19-10. But that number is somewhat skewed by Washington’s 6-0 win back in November, and the Caps’ 12-3 advantage in the first two games. After the arrival of Dwayne Roloson in Tampa and the emergence of Michal Neuvirth in Washington, the emphasis on goaltending between the two teams over sheer offensive firepower began.
What’s encouraging for the Lightning is that both of Tampa’s wins were shutouts. Overall, the improvement for both teams in the crease is reflected by half of the six games ending with one side getting blanked.
History: They may be division rivals, which increases the temperature of the brewing playoff emotional cauldron. But after a first round saturated with bad blood (see: Boston/Montreal, Vancouver/Chicago), glaring incidents between these two teams to throw more fuel on the fire are sparse.
Maybe Steve Downie will summon his inner Superman again when he enters the kill zone behind the net, and Alex Ovechkin will fight off Matt Bradley before finally dropping the mitts with Downie. It’ll be like a triple threat match, and the winner gets the Intercontinental Championship…
The case for Washington: If there was some kind of pseudo Conn Smythe Trophy awarded after each round, it probably would have gone to Roloson for round one. In fact, we know it would have, because we said so.
But while Roloson is more than deserving of the accolades he’s received for his role in Tampa Bay’s comeback series win over Pittsburgh, this Neuvirth kid is kind of a big deal too. During the first season in which he received significant playing time–Neuvirth started 45 games this year after starting a combined 19 over the past two seasons–the 23-year-old may have finally given Washington a hint of stability in goal.
Neuvirth hasn’t crumbled when faced with that whirling playoff pressure cooker either, blanking the Rangers once while allowing only one goal on two other occasions in Washington’s opening round win. If the season series shows us anything, it’s that the potent offences on both benches could cancel each other out, making this a battle between two goaltenders aiming to make the critical save at the critical time.
The series could become an exchange of offensive chances, with duelling goalies at both ends. And if it does, Washington finally seems to have confidence in a goalie who can match his opponent’s jabs in the playoffs.
The case for Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos quickly and painfully learned about the physicality of playoff hockey when he was drilled by Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik. Although Stamkos had a much needed outburst in Game 5, a sniper who had the second most goals in the league was held completely off the scoresheet five times in the series.
But don’t worry, because scoring depth isn’t a problem for Tampa. Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Simon Gagne combined for 24 points against Pittsburgh, supporting their goaltender who holds the best save percentage (.949) in the playoffs. While some–including Lightning head coach Guy Boucher–are trumpeting this as a David vs. Goliath series, that’s a difficult conclusion to envision given Tampa’s ability to match Washington’s secondary scoring. Whether it’s Steve Downie potting six points over his last three games, or Dominic Moore with a goal and two assists in the same stretch, the Lightning are one of the few teams capable of matching Washington’s high octane game.
5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: Tampa Bay 0.99 (18th), Washington 1.07 (12th)
PP: Tampa Bay 20.5% (6th), Washington 17.5% (16th)
PK: Tampa Bay 83.8% (8th), Washington 85.6% (2nd)
Goal differential: Tampa Bay +0.08, Washington + 0.29
Key matchup: The clash of special teams could determine this series. Led by that patented Stamkos back door one-timer, the Lightning boast of one of league’s most explosive powerplays. Meanwhile, Washington’s sturdy, big-bodied defenceman like Jeff Schultz and Scott Hannan have consistently cleared the slot for Neuvirth, a recipe that’s given Washington the league’s second best penalty kill unit.
Prediction: Boucher’s pre-series cliché throwing is likely just rhetoric designed to take some pressure off of his team following a long, grueling series. Or at least we hope so, because in a second round filled with evenly matched teams, this series gives birth to identical twins.
Both teams are riding hot goalies who could still falter due to Neuvirth’s inexperience, and Roloson’s random softies. Those who enjoy generic nicknames will also be delighted to see an offensive Big Three on each team, and overall the special teams will be special.