For all the NHL's attempts to create rivalries out of familiarity and geography, it's a well-known fact that the best method of turning a "rivalry" into a rivalry lies in the playoffs. It's why the old Patrick Division rivalries remain heated to this day and are often more relevant to fans who lived through them - not because they played each other all the time, but because they played each other all the time in the postseason, when goals and hits and great saves take on greater meaning and every moment of a game is heightened. And as the Caps prepare to face the Lightning, marking the second time the two teams will meet in the playoffs, it's possible that the mutual dislike that has simmered softly in the Southeast will now reach a boiling point.
With star power to spare and a slew of entertaining games behind them, there's plenty to look forward to in this second-round series. After the jump, a look at some of the storylines and things to watch heading into the Conference Semifinals...
The Net Situation
Neuvirth's playoff numbers so far are sparkling, with the best GAA of any goalie appearing in at least three games (1.38, just ahead of Roloson's 1.77) and the second-best save percentage among those same goalies (0.946...which just barely trails Roloson's 0.949). And he'll need to keep those numbers up to compete with the man in Tampa, as Roloson continues to be a huge reason for Tampa's success so far. His career numbers against Washington aren't bad, but it's his numbers this year that will really give you nightmares: in five regular season games he posted a 1.38 GAA, a 0.953 save percentage...and two shutouts.
That being said, he's still human and still beatable, particularly if he can be taken off his game by crowding his crease or even running into him a bit. Roloson is an emotional goaltender, one who can sometimes get rattled. If that happens it can get him flustered - and make his team flustered, as well. Plus it's not to be overlooked that Roloson is 41, coming off a seven-game series in which he faced over a hundred more shots than his Washington counterpart and facing a tightly compacted second-round schedule. Advantage, youth?
Shutting Down the Firepower
It's no secret that the Lightning have some dangerous offensive talent on their roster, with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis providing a furious one-two punch most nights. Against the Capitals this year, however, the two have been relatively quiet, combining for two goals and five assists in the six games against Washington - well off their normal pace.
To uncover the reason for this relative drought, one need look no further than the shutdown defensive tandem of John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Throughout the regular season (and in the playoffs, as well) the young blueliners were often given the toughest assignments - which included Stamkos and St. Louis with Tampa. They were so effective against the duo that not only did they finish a combined plus-eleven for the season series, but neither was on the ice for a single Lightning goal in any of the games. Not bad.
Score Early, Score Often
One of the trademarks of Tampa's attack is that they jump on teams early. During the regular season, they had the second-highest goal total in the first period with 82 and scored the first goal 51 times; by contrast, the Caps were second to last with just 52 first period tallies and got on the board first just 35 times. And it's a trend that's continued into the postseason, with the Lightning tied for third with seven first-period goals (and the Caps again bringing up the rear with just one).
Another trademark - and perhaps a symptom - of such an aggressive early attack is that they tend to let up on the gas as the game goes on (or are simply out of gas altogether). The dropoff in scoring from the first period to the third was dramatic in 2010-11, going from 82 goals to a fourth-lowest 64 goals in the final twenty minutes. And while the Lightning fade late, the Caps tended to finish strong, with 26 more goals in the third than in the first.
Regardless of when they're scoring, however, both teams have shown an innate ability to bounce back from an early first strike by their opponents. In fact, they finished with the top two winning percentages when trailing first, the Caps on top of the NHL with 0.489 (23-19-5) and the Lightning close behind at 0.452 (14-13-4).
Special Special Teams
During the regular season the Caps and Lightning were dueling special teams powerhouses, Tampa with their power play that was reminiscent of what it used to look like in Washington (and which still finished sixth-best overall despite fading as the season went on) and the Caps with their new-look penalty kill that trailed only Pittsburgh. And to some extent both have continued on these paths. Tampa's power play lit up the Penguins, scoring eight times on twenty-seven opportunities with the extra man to earn the best power play among the Eastern teams and the third-best among all playoff teams, while the Caps gave up just one power play goal in their series against the Rangers for a 95% penalty kill.
Of note, however, is the fact that the Caps won the special teams battle during their regular season series against the Lightning, with a power play clicking at almost 24% through six games and a penalty killing unit that was 88.5% effective. Also of note? The discrepancies when it came to drawing penalties in the first place, with the Caps cashing in on a quarter of the seventeen extra-man advantages they earned but having to kill off almost ten more shorthanded opportunities. Must be all that diving Stamkos is doing...
Lightning-Killer vs. Cap-Killer
For two teams as familiar as these two are, it's only natural to see players with excellent head-to-head numbers against their division rivals - particularly considering the offensive talent on each side.
By sheer numbers alone, the man who has owned the Lightning over the years is none other than Alex Ovechkin, whose 60 points in 42 games is the second-highest point total against any opponent he's faced. This year, however, he's been slightly eclipsed by the Other Alex, Alexander Semin. Semin's career numbers against Tampa are gaudy enough in their own right, but it's what he's done in just four games this season that could be a good sign of things to come - seven goals and two assists, including two hat tricks.
For Tampa Bay, on the other hand, there is only one Cap-Killer worth mentioning and that man is Martin St. Louis. He may be having a tough time finding the back of the net against the Caps this season but his point-per-game pace over the course of his career are enough to remind any Caps fan not to take their eyes off him for a minute.
Bruce Boudreau takes his fair share of criticism, warranted or not, for what is perceived as a failure to adjust his team's game when it's necessary. For all the heat he takes, however, there are times when he proves his nay-sayers wrong. The defensive system the Caps switched to mid-season falls into that category; his tactics against the Lightning this year would, as well.
Tampa coach Guy Boucher employs a defensive system of his own, a 1-3-1 system with strong transitions that, when carried out correctly, can be both infuriating and deadly to their opponents. But Boudreau got his team to shift just enough so that it broke the system, using patience, selective pressure and long cross-ice passes to stifle the Tampa attack. It earned boos from the Tampa fans and a win for the good guys...and was even put into practice by another team soon after (although credit was mysteriously withheld).
While it's unlikely that a similar approach would work throughout an entire playoff series, it does foreshadow the coaching matchup in the second round, the grizzled, outspoken veteran bench boss taking on the soft-spoken wunderkind for a trip to the Conference Finals.