Chances are the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning won’t face each other again until the 2019-20 NHL Season. But thanks to the schedule makers, the two teams will be headed to the postseason with plenty to chew on after playing each other three times over 15 days in the closing weeks of the regular season.
Coming into Tampa last night, the Capitals were the team that had something to prove, having dropped a 6-3 decision at Amalie Arena to the Lightning on Mar. 16 before losing an overtime heartbreaker, 5-4, back in Washington on Mar. 20. After sitting through pre-game ceremonies as the NHL presented the Presidents’ Trophy to the Lightning for the best record in the regular season and Steven Stamkos collected a silver stick for becoming the franchise’s all-time leading goal scorer, the Caps wasted little time in delivering their message, scoring three unanswered goals in the first period before cruising to a 6-3 victory.
In a postgame interview with NBC Sports Washington, Alex Ovechkin said the Capitals wanted to “remind” the Lightning “who is Stanley Cup Champions.” Quiet playmaker Nicklas Backstrom helped set the tone at 7:24 of the first period with his 20th goal of the season, the seventh member of the team to hit that mark, underlining how balanced the Washington attack has become, and how easy it is for the team to overcome the temporary loss of an offensive spark plug like Brett Connolly, who missed last night’s game with the flu.
T.J. Oshie scored this 24th and 25th goals at 10:45 and 16:00 of the period, giving Washington a 3-0 lead heading into the first intermission. At 7:53 of the second period, Backstrom scored his 21st goal, stretching Washington’s lead to 4-0. But as it turned out, the message sending wasn’t over yet.
Caps and Lightning Trade Punches in Third Period
With the number one seed and home ice advantage wrapped up throughout the playoffs, it seemed as if the Lightning had little to play for last night. Still, they made a game of it, as J.T. Miller scored at 17:25 of the second period to make it 4-1. Just 3:36 into the third, Tyler Johnson scored for Tampa Bay, cutting the lead to 4-2.
The rivalry between the Capitals and Lightning seems simple. When Tampa asserts their superior skills, they carry the balance of the play. But when Washington gets more physical and sticks to the system that was installed by former head coach Barry Trotz, the Capitals are able to impose their will on the ice and the scoreboard.
Ever since the Caps beat the Lightning in seven games in the Eastern Conference Final last spring, Tampa Bay has tried to use that heartbreaking loss as a motivator to raise the level of their physical play. That added sandpaper supplied by Anthony Cirelli at 9:26 of the third period got under the skin of veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik, and the two tangled in a fight that ended when Orpik wrestled the Tampa Bay forward to the ice.
Tempers flared again a few minutes later when Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak tangled with Capitals winger Tom Wilson. The two heavyweights traded blows for a few seconds before Wilson landed a right cross that sent the Czech defenseman to the locker room for the balance of the night.
Ovechkin Makes History Again and Again
Between fisticuffs, Ovechkin scored his 51st and 52nd goals of the season, adding a few more lines to an impressive resume that establishes him as the premier goal scorer of his era. The tally at 14:35 of the third period marked the eighth time Ovechkin has scored 50 goals in the regular season in his career. Only Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy have done it more often at nine times each.
The goal also moved Ovechkin into sole possession of 13th place in goal scoring all-time with 657, passing Brendan Shanahan. Ovechkin’s next goal at 16:15 came on the power play, moving him into a tie with Luc Robitaille for fifth all-time in power play goals with 247. The latest great that Ovechkin passed with that goal was Phil Esposito with 246. As Caps blog Japers’ Rink recently pointed out, Ovechkin, despite his detractors, has been remarkably consistent over the course of his career.
After Ovechkin scored the milestone goals, Washington Post reporter Dan Steinberg couldn’t help but unearth a tweet from 2013 that Pierre McGuire of NBC Sports may not ever be able to live down.
How Can the Caps Clinch the Metropolitan Division?
With Tampa Bay out of the way and the New York Islanders still only three points behind in second, the priority for the Capitals is clinching the Metropolitan Division and home-ice advantage through at least the first two rounds of the playoffs. According to Sports Club Stats, Washington has an 88% chance to clinch the division with just three games to go.
Unfortunately, their season finale is at home versus the second place Islanders. So while the Islanders clinched a playoff spot with a 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night, they still have plenty of motivation to finish out the slate strong. In addition to their fading hopes of catching the Capitals, Trotz and the Islanders still want to hold off the third-place Pittsburgh Penguins in order to secure home ice in a potential
Job #1 for Washington will be to sew things up before the Islanders come to D.C. on Apr. 6 and turn that Saturday night matchup into a glorified exhibition game. At this point, a combination of a single Capitals win plus an Islanders loss or a pair of wins by Washington in their next two games will clinch the division.
Tomorrow night, Washington moves onto Sunrise to play the Florida Panthers, while the Islanders will be hosting John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs for the last time this season at the Nassau Coliseum. If their last trip to Long Island is any indication, the locals will remain motivated in what will be the regular season home finale for the Islanders.
On Thursday, it’s the Islanders who will be in Sunrise to play the Panthers. As for Washington, they’ll be back home in the District of Columbia to play the Montreal Canadiens, a team clinging to fading playoff hopes.