The Lightning and the Capitals battled six times in the regular season for supremacy in the Southeast Division, and following Tampa Bay's 1-0 win in Game 7 of their first-round series against the Penguins, they'll meet at least four more times in the conference semifinals.
Their regular-season battles were offensive-minded affairs. Washington won the first two games by a combined score of 12-3, but the final four games came after Tampa acquired goalie Dwayne Roloson, and the teams split those games. The Lightning had a pair of shutouts, two games went to overtime and one went to a shootout.
Can the 41-year-old Roloson maintain his stellar play? Or will Washington's rookie Michal Neuvirth outplay another battle-tested veteran, like he did the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist?
Will Washington's juggernaut offense, which could see the return of the injured Mike Knuble at some point, explode to life? Or will Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, who had just 2 goals in the first round, evolve into a prime-time playoff performer?
With all those questions should come some very entertaining answers.
Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin led Washington's offense, but surprisingly it was rookie center Marcus Johansson and speedy forward Jason Chimera who combined forces for some of the biggest goals of the series against the Rangers. Ovechkin played his best game in the clincher, while Johansson arguably was the team's best center.
Washington could use more from top center Nicklas Backstrom, but if Ovechkin and Semin are pacing the top two lines and the third line can contribute as well, the Capitals are a scary bunch up front. Mike Knuble missed the final two games of the series against New York but should return at some point in Round 2. Eric Fehr took his place on the roster and had two strong games.
Early in the first-round series against the Penguins, offensive production primarily came from the veterans, including Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. But as the Lightning began to battle back in the series, others joined in, most notably Sean Bergenheim, Steve Downie, Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell. Bergenheim scored the only goal of Game 7 and Steven Stamkos scored his first two goals of the series in Game 5.
"If you followed our team, that was our trademark -- those third-liners, the grinders, the defensemen. We always have new heroes every game," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said.
During the regular season, the Lightning offense was fueled by 10 double-digit goal-scorers and finished among the top eight in the League with 2.94 goals per game. In the postseason, they had six players with at least 2 goals and averaged 3.14 goals per game. St. Louis leads the team with 4 goals and 8 points, and Simon Gagne and Downie (team-high plus-5 rating) each chipped in with 7 points. Teddy Purcell, who erupted for career highs across the board with 17 goals, 34 assists and 51 points in the regular season, has 4 assists and 5 points in the postseason.
Mike Green has struggled in previous postseasons, but he was a standout in the first round, totaling 5 points and logging plenty of big minutes. He also took a shot off his helmet in Game 5 but proclaimed himself ready for the next round. His partner, Jeff Schultz, has played more (23:15 per game) without being on the ice for a goal-against than any other defenseman in these playoffs.
The young duo of Karl Alzner and John Carlson were on the ice for two goals seven seconds apart in Game 4 and rebounded to be two of the team's best players during the comeback.
Scott Hannan and John Erskine were steady, while Dennis Wideman is back practicing and could be an option toward the end of the round.
The Lightning have done a 180 in the playoffs -- after finishing 22nd in the League during the regular season with a 2.84 goals-against average, Tampa finished the first round second in the postseason with a 2.00 GAA. Leading the way against the Penguins were Eric Brewer, Mike Lundin, Brett Clark, Mattias Ohlund, Pavel Kubina, Victor Hedman and Marc-Andre Bergeron, who returned to the lineup for Game 5.
Brewer not only averages a team-leading 25:43 of ice time per game, but also tops all defenders on the team with 5 points. Hedman (22:14) and Ohlund (20:27) also averaged more than 20 minutes per game on the blue line.
Michal Neuvirth earned the starting nod by being more durable and winning more games in the regular season, and it is hard to argue with that choice at this point. Neuvirth was solid against the Rangers, yielding only eight goals in five games and only two in three contests at Verizon Center. He didn't have to make many spectacular saves because of strong defense in front of him, but Neuvirth also didn't allow any soft goals and forced New York to have to work to beat him. Backup Semyon Varlamov will be ready if Bruce Boudreau calls on him, but it probably will take multiple bad outings from Neuvirth for there to be a change at this point.
Dwayne Roloson, 41, provided just what GM Steve Yzerman envisioned when he traded for him on New Year's Day. Roloson went 4-3 with a 1.77 GAA and League-leading .949 save percentage. He stopped 243 of 256 shots in seven games -- including 36 in the 1-0 Game 7 victory -- and became the second goalie ever to go 6-0 in elimination games. He allowed only four goals in winning the final three games against Pittsburgh, which matched his feat in the second round of the 2003 playoffs, when he led the Minnesota Wild to a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the Vancouver Canucks.
Boudreau's team finished an NHL postseason series in fewer than seven games. That's a good start; now he has to prove they can win more than one in the same postseason.
Boudreau made a couple of key decisions that helped his club finish the Rangers in short order. First was sticking with Neuvirth after he gave up goals seven seconds apart during Game 4; the rookie responded by going nearly 120 minutes without allowing a goal again until Game 5 -- and the series -- was decided. The second was moving Alex Ovechkin from left wing to right near the end of Game 4 and for Game 5.
When his team dropped Game 4 on home ice to fall behind 3-1 in the series, Boucher said, "I'm one of those guys who believes it's possible until there is absolutely no time left. Series are never about momentum, they're about desperation."
How right he was, as the Lightning proved to be one desperate bunch. Boucher pushed all the right buttons when the chips were down.
Washington was one of the top teams at killing penalties during the regular season, and the strong work there has continued in the postseason. All five games against the Rangers were tight, and any of Washington's four wins could have been swung by a timely New York power-play goal. Washington killed 19 of 20 power plays in the series, with the only power-play goal allowed in a game where the team took eight minor penalties.
The power play could be better (3-for-16) but there were plenty of chances and good goaltending by New York's Henrik Lundqvist.
Tampa Bay's power play ranks third in the playoffs with a 29.6-percent efficiency, with St. Louis leading the way with 3 power-play goals. The club has been most effective on the road, going 6-for-16 (37.5 percent) with the man advantage. The Lightning, who finished second in the regular season with 336 power-play opportunities, was tied for fifth with 27 chances against the Penguins.
Tampa was second in penalty-killing this postseason with a 97.1-percent success rate (34-for-35), including a perfect 25-for-25 on the road.
Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals -- Three of Washington's top four young stars were productive in the first round as Ovechkin, Semin and Green combined for 15 points in the five games. Backstrom had 1 point, though he did lead the team's forwards with more than 24 minutes of ice time per game. Washington got a lift from Johansson's 4 points, but asking a third-line center to do that two series in a row could be too much.
Steven Stamkos, Lightning -- Now that Stamkos has passed his initial playoff test, it's time to up the ante. Despite his struggles over the latter stages of the regular season and through the first four games of the playoffs, Stamkos persevered and became an even more complete player, finishing with 2 goals and 2 assists. He knows what it takes to have success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs now and should play a vital role in the conference semifinals.
Capitals will win if... The balanced attack Tampa features can be tough for a defense to handle, but if Washington's defense can hold up as well against the Lightning as did against the Rangers, they should be able to score enough goals to advance.
Lightning will win if... They continue to dominate opponents on special teams. The Lightning killed 34 of 35 power-play chances against the Penguins while going 8-for-27 with the man advantage.