Twenty-nine days after their 2018 Stanley Cup playoff voyage began, the Caps are set to start their third-round series against the Lightning in Tampa Bay on Friday night. Washington is in the third round for the first time in 20 years while the Bolts are here for the third time in the last four springs.
"Obviously we understand right now, only four teams are left," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. "We have a huge opportunity to win another [round]. So we want to do it and we're ready for it."
Video: #ALLCAPS All-Access | Be the Hungrier Team
This is the third time the Caps will face Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Tampa Bay ousted the Caps in a six-game first-round series in 2003, and it swept Washington in the second round of the 2011 playoffs. The Caps enter this series lugging an eight-game postseason losing streak to the Bolts.
"Obviously the first couple of games, each team has a plan in place they think is going to work against the other," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby, "so that usually creates that kind of feeling out process. I think later in the playoffs, that is going to become shorter and shorter.
"In the Pittsburgh series, it was shorter than the Columbus series and I think this one will be a little shorter than that. There is enough of a pre-scout out there for both teams throughout the playoffs that you basically know what you are going to get. And for us, we want to go right into Game 1 trying not to have any of that process. We want to go in and play our game right away."
Video: Two-Man Advantage | May 11
Washington lost Game 1 in each of its first two series this spring, despite playing well in both of those games.
"Really all that matters is the win or the loss," says Caps right wing T.J. Oshie. "But I think in both of those Game 1s we had outstanding games, and we just didn't come out on top on the scoreboard.
"The focus has got to be on the first couple of shifts - everyone needs to get one good shift in. We've got to play pretty simple, and very direct to start the game, and then make adjustments from there."
Video: Capitals Pregame Locker Room | May 11
Road Warriors - This is the first series the Caps have opened on the road since they opened their second-round series against the New York Rangers in Manhattan back in 2015. This series against the Lightning is the 18thfor the Capitals during the Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom era, and it's just the fourth time the Caps will open on the road.
That's fine with the Caps, who are 5-1 on the road in the 2018 postseason, and they've won 10 of their last 11 games on the road overall, dating back to March 22.
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Back In The Saddle Again - Caps right wing Tom Wilson returns to the lineup tonight for Game 1 after serving his three-game league suspension, and Caps winger Andre Burakovsky may draw back into the Washington lineup tonight as well. Burakovsky, who has been sidelined with an upper body injury since Game 2 of the Caps' first-round series against Columbus, will be a game-time decision, according to coach Barry Trotz.
Nicklas Backstrom suffered an upper body injury late in Game 5 of the Caps' second-round set against Pittsburgh, and he did not play in Game 6. Trotz says Backstrom is also a game-time decision, but he did not participate in Washington's Friday morning skate ahead of Game 1, while Burakovsky did.
As he did for Game 6 of the Pittsburgh series, Lars Eller would center Washington's second line if Backstrom is unable to play in Game 1. Chandler Stephenson would slot into the middle of the third line; Stephenson is a center by trade who has played mostly on the wing for Washington in his first full season in the league.
Video: Barry Trotz Pregame | May 11
"Lars has the ability to move up," says Trotz. "He did a real good job last game, and if he has to do that some more, he will. He is a big, strong man, he's got a good hockey IQ and he can do a lot of different things. So I feel very comfortable with our middle. I think that's the strength of probably all the teams that are left [in the playoffs], that they all have the center ice position filled right through their lineup, and they've got good depth. We're in the same position as everybody else, and that gives us real strength up the middle."
Wilson doesn't miss many games. Before he was suspended for the first four games of he 2017-18 regular season, he had played in 164 consecutive games, dating back to the start of the 2015-16 season. His first NHL suspension caused him to miss opening night of the '17-18 season, but sitting out three games in the playoffs was much more painful to endure.
"It's different, for sure," says Wilson. "I'd be curious to look at the amount of days missed vs. games missed. I know it was four games [in October] and three games [in May], but the four games I think were more spread out at the beginning of the season. I think it was maybe two weeks, or 11 or 12 days. This was game day, off day, game day, off day - it kind of flew by.
Video: Tom Wilson | May 9
"It was extremely painful to sit out and watch. But it's been a week now, and I feel good. It's a couple of rest days. I tried to stay in the routine and tried to stay mentally into the game and into the battle of it. I'm just going to look at as if I was playing all along. I'm not going to think about how I missed three games, I feel good physically and after a couple of shifts to get into it, you never look back.
"I'm a guy that needs to be bringing a lot of energy for this team, and I've got to get right back into it real quick - hit or get hit. It's going to be fun. It was a tough series against [Pittsburgh], I got a couple of games off and the guys did a phenomenal job stepping up. It's different for sure coming back this time around than the last time around. I feel more mentally engaged. Last time around, I hadn't even played a game yet. I had played exhibition games, but I hadn't played a regular season game. This time, I feel like I've been in the battle for two or three weeks now, and I'm ready to go."
Getting Wilson back should be a boost for the Capitals. He is averaging 19:16 per night in ice time in the playoffs, and despite missing three games, he still ranks third on the team (and tied for 21stin the league) in even-strength scoring with seven points (two goals, five assists).
"He is a big player for us," says Oshie of Wilson. "He is a guy who has put himself into our core group of leaders being even just a young guy. But he brings so much energy to the team. I imagine he brings a lot of headaches to the other team because of his size, his strength, and his speed.
"One thing he does good to jump on [Evgeny Kuznetsov] and Ovi's line is he can hound pucks. He can win battles. He can create space for those guys to do what they do best, and that's put the puck in the back of the net."
Video: Alex Ovechkin Pregame | May 11
Remembering The Rare Debut - Five years ago yesterday, Wilson made his NHL debut. Not only did he skate in his first NHL game just a few weeks after celebrating his 19th birthday, he debuted in the middle of a Stanley Cup playoff series, suiting up for Game 5 of the Caps' first-round series against the New York Rangers.
"That was a whirlwind of an experience," recalls Wilson. "I almost didn't know how gigantic of an experience it was at the time. I came in and I just played a hockey game as a hockey player, and I didn't think much of it. I was just kind of feeding off of energy and adrenaline."
Because that was the lockout season and it had been less than a calendar year since Wilson was drafted, he had the extremely rare distinction of playing in his first NHL playoff game before he even participated in his first NHL training camp.
"It's completely different now," says Wilson. "I've got to go out there and make sure that I'm extremely focused, extremely responsible and extremely dialed in on making plays and stuff. You grow every year and you get more comfortable with your team and you get closer to your teammates and you get that bond.
"You come up and you play a couple of games in the playoffs when you hadn't been a part of that team, it's different for sure. I'll never forget that. It's an experience that many people wouldn't get, to jump into their first game in a playoff game. It speaks to the faith that [then-GM] George [McPhee] and [then-coach Adam Oates] had in me. It's a huge compliment that they would put me in that game thinking about it now. It's a fun time of year and every time you get to play a playoff game - no matter what experience you've had prior - it's a lot of fun, and it's huge."
It Was 20 Years Ago Today - On May 11, 1998, the Caps dropped a 4-3 decision to the Ottawa Senators in Game 3 of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series. It would be the only game Washington would lose in the series.
Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson scored three times in the first period, tallying twice on the power play. Caps defenseman Sergei Gonchar scored on a power play in between Alfredsson's second and third goals, and when Peter Bondra scored on another Washington power play at 1:08 of the second, it was suddenly a 3-2 game.
But Alexei Yashin's power-play goal - the Sens' third extra-man strike of the game - midway through the second made it a 4-2 game. Yashin's goal became the game-winner when Richard Zednik scored for Washington late in the third.
The Sens doubled up the Caps in shots on net, 34-17, with 13 of those Ottawa shots coming on the power play.
In The Nets - Holtby starts for the Capitals in Game 1, his 11thstart of the 2018 playoffs. Holtby is 8-3 overall in the playoffs this season, and he is 8-2 as a starter. He is now 37-33 with a 2.00 GAA and a .931 save pct. in 70 career playoff appearances (69 starts).
Lifetime against the Lightning in the regular season, Holtby is 9-3-2 with a couple of shutouts, a 2.75 GAA and a .910 save pct.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has the net for the Lightning, and this is the 23-year-old netminder's first playoff run as the team's undisputed starter, though he saw a fair amount of action in both the 2015 and 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs. He is 8-2 in the playoffs this season, and lifetime in the postseason, he is 12-7 with a 2.51 GAA and a .923 save pct.
Vasilevskiy has allowed two or fewer goals in six of his 10 postseason starts this spring.
All Lined Up - Here is how we expect the Caps and the Lightning to look when they take the ice for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final series on Friday night in Tampa at Amalie Arena:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 20-Eller, 77-Oshie
10-Connolly, 18-Stephenson, 65-Burakovsky
25-Smith-Pelly, 83-Beagle, 39-Chiasson
19-Backstrom (upper body, day-to-day)
65-Burakovsky (upper body, day-to-day)
10-Miller, 91-Stamkos, 86-Kucherov
18-Palat, 21-Point, 9-Johnson
17-Killorn, 71-Cirelli, 37-Gourde
14-Kunitz, 13-Paquette, 24-Callahan
73-Erne (lower body)