Columbus is in the rearview mirror, the Pens have been dispatched... and the Caps are on their way to their first Eastern Conference Final appearance since 1998. What does the Rink crew have to say about this next step and what awaits them in Tampa? Read on.
Q1: The Caps just vanquished the Pens for the first time in 24 years and reached the ECF for the first time in 20 years. Given the emotional weight of such an achievement, are you concerned about a letdown against Tampa, or do you think the team will be “lighter” now that they’ve gotten over the hump?
J.P.: For the fans? Perhaps (especially given this unfamiliar “starting a series on the road” thing). But I don’t think the team will have any trouble ratcheting the intensity back up. Sure, the animosity isn’t there for Tampa the way it is with Pittsburgh or even Columbus, and there is that whole “hump” thing. But there’s enough familiarity there (especially with seemingly half of those Rangers teams from a few years back on the roster) that, coupled with the obvious stakes, it won’t take long for the Caps to pick up where they left off, emotionally. Add to that the return to the lineup of at least one, uh, energy source, and I have zero concerns here.
Jason: I mean, as a fan, personally I can die happy. I don’t give a sh*t what Wilbon or Kornheiser say. But no, I don’t think this team is satisfied. In that great video the Caps organization put out, one of the first things Barry Trotz says in the locker room is, “Only halfway there, right O?” referring to Ovechkin. They know that they need eight more. And that they only need eight more. It took TWENTY YEARS to only need eight more. I think they’ve got the right mix of hungry veterans and devil-may-care youth to keep pushing and keep their foot on the pedal.
Peerless: Not concerned, really. In a way, opening on the road confers the advantage of focus for the Caps, who won’t be deluged quite as much with the “We Beat the Penguins” narratives. This is a team that has dealt well with distractions, but having fewer on the road could be a godsend. And, this is a club that, despite its overall success, the Caps have had a measure of success against. I think the team is just about where it needs to be as the series starts.
Rob: I don’t think this team is finally going to take their foot off the gas or give in on the intensity now that they’ve finally passed the second round. If we are going the pop psych route, it’s just as likely the burden is off their shoulders and they play free as a bird and start scoring at will. But none of that psychological stuff is going to matter. The real concern is that they’re now facing a team that has multiple competent defensemen and three forward lines with skill and speed. If they don’t get healthy and Trotz doesn’t learn to embrace the younger, faster, more talented depth options, the match ups could get ugly.
Becca: As unthinkable as it is to agree with these boys, I’ll agree... in general. I do think there’s the potential for a bit of a letdown, maybe early in the first (and hopefully lasting no more than one period). But nothing about the way this team has conducted itself tells me that they’re ready to be done now that they’ve gotten past Pittsburgh - especially since they know, to a man, that the Penguins were likely the only thing keeping them from, if not a Cup, at least a spot in the Stanley Cup Final. I think they’ll be ready to go.
Q2: Who or what do you see as being the X factor for the Caps against the Lightning?
J.P.: Tom Wilson. If he can contribute (like he has) while playing his game within the limits of whatever are the rules du jour, he has the potential to make a big positive difference in this series. We’ve seen plenty of match-ups in which an opponent’s preoccupation with #43 has cost them (be it Pittsburgh, Columbus, Philadelphia, the Isles or whomever else), and I’d hope that can continue. Of course, if it’s Sideshow Tom that shows up, that won’t help the Caps. So it’s on him (and his coach) to rein it in a bit while still being effective in all the ways he can be. It’s a tough line to walk, but he can walk it.
Jason: Not the X-factor, but the V-factor, as in Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. Yeah, he led the NHL in shutouts during the regular season, but his underlying playoff statistics are extremely average at best, and...well, kinda crummy at worst.
Among starting playoff goalies, his high-danger save percentage at even-strength is 6th, and just 4th in the East. On the penalty kill, Vasilevskiy looks even more suspect. To Tampa’s credit, V for Vendetta has spent the least amount of time down a man of any goalie these playoffs. But, when on the penalty kill, Vasilevskiy’s .867 SV% puts him 9th among 16 playoff starting goalies, and his high-danger save percentage when 5-on-4 plummets to .667%, just 12th among the 16 starters.
If the Caps can draw penalties (something everyone but Jakub Vrana has struggled to do) and successfully get to the dangerous areas of the ice on the power play, the Lightning may wish that they had Forgot About Drei.
Becca: Systems and special teams. The Caps are, for once, not the more talented team in this matchup; Tampa is deeper and faster. For the Caps to come out victorious, they’ll need to have the same mindset they did with a depleted lineup in Game 6 against the Pens and stick to their system - and taking advantage of the leaky Tampa penalty kill, could help provide an offensive buffer if five-on-five play swings in the Bolts’ favor.
Peerless: The third defensive pair. Tampa is deeper than Pittsburgh, more skilled than Columbus among the forwards. There will be no hiding anyone in this series. Brooks Orpik might have to have the series of his life (well, as a Capital) for the team to have a better than even chance to advance.
Rob: The third line. Agree with Peerless that Tampa is in some ways a combination of the prior two teams (Pittsburgh in the front, Columbus in the back--the Metropolitan Mullet). The Lightning just got rolled by Boston’s top line, but ended up winning the series--and more comfortably than you’d expect given the way that top line matchup played out. That’s because Tampa’s second and third lines were a constant threat (and managed to turn that possession threat into production). If Backstrom isn’t around to keep the Stamkos/Kucherov/Miller line in check, the matchups are going to get even uglier. I’m terrified Trotz is going to have DSP and Chiasson out there trying to keep Yanni Gourde or Brayden Point in check. These are matchups where guys like Stephenson, Walker, Gersich, and Boyd could really be intriguing. Unfortunately, the presence of more than one of them probably means the team is dealing with more critical injuries in the top six.
Q3: Let’s do it again - drop those predictions.
J.P.: Now’s no time to get squeamish - Caps in seven.
Becca: Ditto. Let’s do this.
Jason: Tampa don’t want this. Two decades and two back-to-back championships weren’t enough to stop the Caps. DC in six.
Peerless: We called the Caps in six in each of the first two rounds, so we’ll go with that.
Rob: Emotional storylines are nice. Talent is better. Tampa in 7.