No matchup — save for maybe the New York Rangers — in the second round of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs would have given the Washington Capitals a bigger dragon to slay than what they got in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sure enough, the Capitals plucked the long-embedded playoff thorn from their collective side and are on to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in a generation.
That being said, a former Southeast Division rival has played an outsized yet perhaps understated role in the Ted Leonsis era of the Caps. Twice in the last 15 years, Washington’s upcoming opponent for the Prince of Wales Trophy, the Tampa Bay Lightning, have been the catalyst for a Capitals rebuild or retool. And they might be again.
Their first playoff meeting came in 2003, when the Lightning finished one point ahead of the Caps to win the division title for the first time. Capitals defenseman Sergei Gonchar was having the best season of his career and Peter Bondra, Jaromir Jagr, and Robert Lang paced the forward corps with 88 goals between them.
After winning 3-0 and 6-3 in the first two games of the first-round series at what was then called the St. Pete Times Forum, Washington built on what was already a firmly-entrenched vernal reputation. Vincent Lecavalier scored on a 5-on-3 powerplay for an overtime win in Game 3 back in Chinatown, and the offense sputtered the next night in Game 4 as the Lightning tied the series with a 3-1 win. Tampa Bay held serve on home ice to earn an opportunity to clinch the series in Game 6 at the then-MCI Center.
Dave Andreychuk tied the game with 4:06 remaining in regulation, and when the Lightning went on the power play after the Caps were called for having too many men in the third overtime, the Capitals’ perennially star-crossed fate re-entered the fray. Martin St. Louis circled around the net as Washington blueliner Jason Doig couldn’t disrupt Lecavalier’s feed, and St. Louis beat Olie Kolzig glove-side to win the series. It was the fourth time in franchise history that the team had lost a series after leading 2-0 and sixth after blowing a two-game lead.
That series preceded a disastrous 2003-04 campaign. The Caps’ worst season since 1977-78 would see the team put up 59 points by the time all was said and done, and head coach Bruce Cassidy was fired in mid-December after not quite a year and a half behind the bench. Even more important, however, was the fire sale initiated by then-general manager George McPhee that changed the very foundation of the organization.
In no particular order: Lang was traded to Detroit while he led the league in points for Tomas Fleischmann and a draft pick that became Mike Green. Jagr, the one-time crown jewel of the early Leonsis years, was shipped to the Rangers. Gonchar? To Boston, for Shaone Morrissonn and a couple of picks. Even Bondra, unquestionably the team’s best-ever forward until Alex Ovechkin came to town, became an Ottawa Senator in exchange for Brooks Laich. Captain Steve Konawalchuk wasn’t safe, either, and went to Colorado.
The ensuing tank after those pieces were traded away saw the Capitals finish in a tie for second-to-last in the league with the Chicago Blackhawks, one point ahead of the Penguins. The rest almost goes without saying, and after one year of a lockout and two years of subpar play, the Caps made the playoffs for the first time with Ovechkin in 2008. That brings us to the 2011 postseason.
One year removed from a disaster against the Montreal Canadiens and two from losing in the second round to the Penguins in seven after taking a 2-0 series lead, Washington made quick work of the Rangers in the first round. Fifth-seeded Tampa Bay was next in the Eastern Conference semis. The Capitals had the best record in the East, and even if the 46-win Lightning were no slouches after previously dispatching Pittsburgh, it stood to reason that a long-awaited breakthrough was imminent. The series began with the Bolts claiming home-ice advantage with a 4-2 win in Game 1. The Caps needed to score a goal with goalie Michal Neuvirth pulled in the final minutes of Game 2 just to force overtime, where Lecavalier — yes, him again — stunned the District crowd with a game-winner after a failed line change by Washington.
As the series shifted to Central Florida, the Capitals’ new defensive system broke down entirely en route to a four-game sweep. The Caps couldn’t hang on to a 3-2 lead after two periods in Game 3, losing 4-3 before getting nigh destroyed the next night as their season faded way with barely a whimper. This was Tyson vs. Spinks on ice. Head coach Bruce Boudreau was now 2-4 in the playoffs with the Caps. McPhee said in 2008 that his bench boss was under contract for “a long time”, but on Nov. 28, 2011, Boudreau was dismissed when a 7-0 start gave way to a 5-9-1 tailspin.
His replacement was franchise legend Dale Hunter, who preached a patient, coin-flip brand of hockey that led to an upset of the defending champion Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs later that season. The team fell in seven games to the Rangers the next round in a series that was as much of a classic as the one that directly preceded it. 13 of the 14 games the Capitals played that spring were decided by one goal, with six needing overtime.
Although the ramifications took longer to come to fruition this time around than they did eight years earlier, the 2011 loss to the Lightning spurred on a significant change to the team’s makeup. After Hunter returned to his London Knights junior team back home in Ontario, McPhee handed the reins to Adam Oates in June 2012. What came to pass was a two-year downward spiral that ended with the team missing the playoffs entirely for the first time in seven years, and Leonsis “blew up” the front office, replacing McPhee and Oates with Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz, respectively.
If the favored Lightning were to make it 3-for-3 in the playoffs against the Capitals, would we see similarly profound changes to the structure of the team this time? It’s possible.
Trotz is in the final year of the contract he signed in 2014, and if reports are to be believed, he already knows that his days in the DMV are numbered. Trotz was the first hire made four years ago this month by Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick before MacLellan was promoted from within. Personally, I don’t think that there’s any path in place for Trotz to return next year. Either MacLellan will not re-sign him for performance or philosophical reasons, or Trotz will utilize his first-ever conference final appearance as leverage for a better deal elsewhere with a different team. But with that being said, the only vacancy left is with the Rangers, so that aspect may have deteriorated some in the last week.
Nicklas Backstrom’s bargain of a contract expires in two years, when he’ll be 32. Ovechkin’s deal is up the following season when he’s 35. More urgently, John Carlson will be an unrestricted free agent this summer unless MacLellan signs him to a deal that will probably command a cap hit around $7 million. If he can make that work with only $12.7 million in current projected cap space for 2018-19 before the potential re-signings of Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle, and Michal Kempny while still fielding a top-five team in the East, he should be named GM of the Decade. Did I mention that they’ll probably need a backup goalie if and when Phillip Grubauer leaves?
Alternatively, if this reborn Capitals squad that finally exorcised their demons on Monday night has convinced MacLellan that they are trending in the right direction, less radical changes would be in order (note: I don’t intend to suggest that MacLellan will, let alone should, trade Ovechkin and/or Backstrom if they lose this series). MacLellan’s moves last summer involved going younger with the likes of prospects Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos, taking a flyer on journeymen like Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson, as well as the trade deadline acquisitions of Kempny and Jakub Jerabek. To this point, they’ve paid dividends when it looked as though the loss of Marcus Johansson, Nate Schmidt, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, and others would prove ruinous.
Washington’s two prior playoff series against Tampa Bay have brought them to where they are now, if in a winding and roundabout fashion. If Kolzig doesn’t get that double-minor for high-sticking in Game 5 in 2003, maybe Vinny Prospal doesn’t score the game’s first goal, and the Caps end up winning the series in six or seven games, and Cassidy doesn’t lose the locker room as quickly as he does, and they don’t end up winning the draft lottery in April 2004. Or if Lecavalier doesn’t go out of his mind (three goals, three assists) in 2011 and the Capitals manage to go on and win that series, maybe they grab one or two more in May and June, and the Boudreau era goes on far longer than it did, with “Where were you for the parade?” instead of “Man, what could have been...” being the prevailing memory.
To be sure, the Lightning aren’t the boogeymen that the Penguins and Rangers have historically been for this team. Watching Sean Bergenheim insert the dagger in the Capitals’ chest that one time doesn’t really compare to three second-round losses to Pittsburgh and two to New York in the Ovechkin era alone, each one painful in its own Washingtonian way. But if the Caps do have four more wins left in them this month after losing eight playoff games in a row to Tampa Bay, the last of those will send out another ghost that has subtly lingered within their house for quite some time.