Perhaps the best rivalry the Southeast Division has put together is taking it’s talents to the playoffs for the first time since the first round in 2003. The Lightning won that battle (the only other post-season battle between the two), but in the eight years since, much has changed for both teams.
Both teams have won a 1st overall draft pick (Stamkos, Ovechkin). Both have had coaching changes (Boucher, Boudreau). Both have had major re-branding initiatives and have re-gained large followings after losing a step in the mid 2000s.
Ever since that night when Ovechkin almost fought Steve Downie in January of 2010, games between the two teams have been especially tense. Despite the difference in position last season, the games were always close and hard-fought. This season, the two have jostled back and forth for the Southeast Division title, with the Capitals pulling away in the final weeks to earn their fourth straight banner.
With the series starting tomorrow, let’s break down the competition by category:
Offense: Both teams have no shortage of weapons up front. For the Bolts, it’s Stamkos, (Hart finalist) St. Louis, Lecavalier, and Simon Gagne, while the Capitals have the obvious Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Alex Semin. Tampa averaged about 2.94 goals per game, good enough for 7th in the league. The Caps, on the other hand, took a drastic fall from their 2009-2010 scoring, ranking 19th in the league with 2.67 goals per game. That shouldn’t make the Bolts feel too comfortable, though. Those players have the ability to explode at will, and the Caps secondary scoring has been chipping in as well. In this case, there is no advantage. Both teams can match each other’s offensive output.
Defense: In the final weeks and months of the season, both teams tweaked their systems to become more defensive-minded to become playoff-ready. The Caps were 4th in the league with a 2.33 goals against average. The Lightning, on the other had, were 22nd with 2.85. The Caps changed their system earlier than the Lightning, giving them more time to develop it. Both teams were able to shut down their first round opponent well, but neither was facing a particularly offensive team. The Lightning defense is more experience, but also slower. With their new dedication, it’s advantage: Caps.
Special Teams: Both teams did very well in this department during the regular season. The Caps ranked 2nd with a 85.6% PK, while the Lightning ranked 8th with 83.8%. Both teams also proved their PK worth in the first round, only allowing one goal each when down a man. The power play is a different story, where the Caps have struggled this season. They were 16th in the league with 17.5%, while the Lightning were 6th at 20.5%. In the playoffs, the Caps had only 3 PPG for a 18.8% efficiency, while the Lighting scored 8 PPG in the first round for a 33.3%. With the PKs being relatively even (though untested in the playoffs) and the discrepency on the PP, advantage: Lightning.
Goaltending: Dwayne Roloson and Michal Neuvirth have both been stories this postseason. They are 1 (Neuvirth) and 2 (Roloson) in the league in GAA with 1.38 and 1.77, respectively among goalies who played the entire series for their team. They are also ranked 1 (Roloson) and 2 (Neuvirth) in save percentage for the playoffs with .949 and .946, respectively. Though at opposite ends of the spectrum with Roloson being a (very) seasoned vet and Neuvirth being a rookie, both have been on their game this spring. Whoever remains hot will likely win the series. Assuming their both on their game, we’ll give the SLIGHT nod to Roloson. Advantage: Lightning.
There is no doubt this is going to be a great series. These division rivals will only hate each other more after these two weeks are done. The Capitals have a huge advantage in playoff experience, and the Lightning will likely be tired after a wearing series with the Pens. Also, I called Pens last series and the Bolts won. So…
Prediction: Caps in 6