No one knows a hockey hangover like the Capitals.
Even before it won the Stanley Cup in 2018, Washington struggled to deal with the grief and the shock of consecutive second-round Stanley Cup playoff losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and again in 2017 after winning the Presidents' Trophy both years. Then after finally winning that elusive title, the Capitals had to come back last year just as hungry.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are feeling that pain right now. The two rivals have an intertwined history. They were Southeast Division rivals for years and have met in the playoffs three times (2003, 2011, 2018).
But it is the thread of back-to-back crushing playoff losses that bind them together. If the championship Capitals were forged in the crucible of the losses to the Penguins, then the Lightning have to hope that their Eastern Conference Final loss to Washington in 2018 and the still shocking sweep to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round last spring eventually lead to a similar end result.
The two teams meet for the final time this regular season on Saturday night at Capital One Arena. Washington has won the first two. It's entirely possible they will see each other again in the playoffs, which would be must-see television. It almost always is between them.
But Tampa Bay has an issue. It isn't over its own hangover yet. The Lightning responded to that 2018 Game 7 loss to the Capitals with one of the great regular seasons in NHL history. They finished with 128 points. Nikita Kucherov won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Andrei Vasilevskiy was the Vezina Trophy winner as best goalie. The roster is littered with stars like Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point and Victor Hedman.
Right now, though, the Lightning are stuck in neutral. They are in sixth place in the Atlantic Division. This is a team most figured would repeat its Presidents' Trophy season of a year ago. Instead, they are a middling 5-4-1 over the past 10 games. They have a +10 goal differential. Last year they outscored opponents by 103 goals.
No NHL team has had as many points in the 22 seasons since 1996-97. No team has scored as many goals (319). No team has had a better power play (29.9%). No team has had as many wins (62). And yet it all went up in smoke in four games against the Blue Jackets. It's still hard to believe.
But if any team can relate it is the Capitals. They have won three Presidents' Trophies this decade for the NHL's best record. None of those years did they make it past the second round let alone win the Stanley Cup.
Washington's 56 wins in 2015-16 are the third most of any team in the previous 22 seasons. Its 55 wins in 2016-17 are fourth. Its 54 wins in 2009-10 are tied for fifth. That year the Capitals had 121 points, which ranks third. The 2015-16 squad had 120 points, which is fourth. They had 118 points in 2016-17 and that's tied for fifth. And yet – no championships.
Each time Washington had to shake off a devastating loss and come back to try again. Many of these same Tampa Bay players were also on the 2015 team that lost in the Cup Final to Chicago. No wonder they are struggling to deal with early season games.
But things aren't as bad as they look. The Capitals had a terrible start to the first seven weeks of the 2017-18 season after they lost multiple key players (Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson, Nate Schmidt) to free agency or the expansion draft. For a time it appeared coach Barry Trotz was about to be fired in mid-November. But Washington turned its season around and, eventually, won the Cup.
Tampa Bay (17-12-4, 38 points) has waited a month longer to get going. With 49 games to go they are out of a playoff spot. But the Atlantic is so tight that the Lightning can move into a tie for second place with a win against the Capitals on Saturday. There is plenty of time to reel off victories and become a formidable opponent in the Eastern Conference even if they can't catch Washington (25-6-5, 55 points) for home ice or the Boston Bruins (21-7-8, 50 points) for the division crown.
Neither the Capitals, who potentially could see Tampa Bay in the first round as a wild card team, or the Bruins, who could see them in the first or second round, would be thrilled with that matchup. That's still all a long way off still. For now, the Capitals and Lightning will give us a preview of what could be another epic spring.
MORE CAPS NEWS