With the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals set to face off in the Eastern Conference Final (ECF), there’s a lot to be discerned from the match-up. As Southeastern Division rivals from 1998 through 2012, these teams have a deep competitive history in the regular season and the playoffs.
Traditionally, Washington has dominated Tampa Bay in the regular season, posting 70 wins and 41 losses while scoring 3.43 goals per game. In their two meetings in the playoffs, however, the Lightning won both, including a 4-0 drubbing of the Capitals in 2011.
This split between success in the regular season and the playoffs is a Capitals trait that exists beyond a Caps vs. Bolts matchup. Since the start of the decade, Washington has won seven division titles and the Presidents’ Trophy three times, but have failed to reach the ECF before this year. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has only won a single division title since 2010 but they have reached the ECF four times and the Stanley Cup Final once in the same time frame.
Capitals and Lightning Share Playoff Collapses
Despite the Capitals and Lightning seeing so much success in their own regards this decade, neither team has claimed their ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup victory. In some ways, it is dumbfounding that neither team has been able to win a Cup in recent years, but they have always collapsed when the moment was brightest.
You can’t talk about postseason struggles without thinking of the Capitals over the last decade. Each year looked like their year to win it all, especially after making big trades at the deadline to assemble a seemingly perfect roster. Yet, despite all of this talent and drive, it consistently came apart before the ECF. Since 2010 alone, they have not been able to win a Game 7 despite having five tries. This has created an almost unfathomable amount of heartbreak for one fanbase to bear.
In contrast, the Lightning have forged their own success this decade. They had multiple Game 7 victories en route to the Cup Final in 2015 and have made it to the ECF twice since 2011. However, just like the Capitals, they suffered defeat in the end. They lost in Game 7 of the 2011 and 2016 ECF and were defeated by the Chicago Blackhawks in six games during the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.
While the Lighting grew closer to winning the Cup, they ultimately suffered the same fate as the Capitals: elimination from the playoffs. This sets up an Eastern Conference Finals where both teams are desperately fighting to rectify a decade of lost potential and heartbreak.
Lightning and Capitals Defying Their Past
In order to reach the Eastern Conference Finals this year, both teams had to overcome some past demons.
For the Capitals, this meant fighting back from a 2-0 series deficit against the Columbus Blue Jackets in round one and then knocking off a long-time playoff roadblock, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in round two. While it looked history might repeat itself after blowing a multi-goal lead in Game 1 against the Penguins, the Capitals pushed back and found a way to eliminate the team that had ended their playoffs the last two seasons.
For the Lightning, they had to face teams that they traditionally struggle against in the playoffs. This storyline was especially prevalent in their series against the Boston Bruins, who eliminated them in Game 7 of the 2011 ECF and have bullied them in the regular season since. Once they faced off in the postseason, however, the Bolts dominated play, cruising to a rather unexpected 4-1 series victory.
The Eastern Conference Final is an Important Proving Ground
By overcoming some of their greatest historical struggles, both Tampa Bay and Washington are proving that history takes a back-seat once you reach the playoffs. While they have been unable to finish the fight in recent years, the past is exactly that: the past.
While anything can happen in a series between these two great teams, only one can continue the quest to rewrite their playoff history, while the loser of the series will be doomed to repeat it for one more year. With a decade of historical precedence leading up to Game 1, this is going to create a fantastic ECF between two former bitter rivals.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.