Capitals center Jay Beagle said he wished the feeling could last just a little longer. After a 2-1 overtime victory Monday, Beagle was ecstatic after finally vanquishing the Pittsburgh Penguins. Like most of his Capitals teammates, he had never advanced to the third round.
But the “high” of the victory was already starting to wear off.
“The goal is the Stanley Cup,” Beagle told reporters. “To get past the second round is huge, but that’s the process. So you enjoy it tonight and then you get refocused.”
The Capitals will have to refocus given their next opponent: the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning are a dangerous hockey team, leading the regular season in goals. Tampa Bay has their own Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom type duo in Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. They’re two electric forwards in a stacked lineup.
Unlike the Capitals, the Lightning have been here before. This will be their third conference finals appearance in four years. They made the Stanley Cup in 2015, losing in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Here are five things to keep in mind with the Lightning.
They’ve dominated the playoffs
The Lightning have cruised to the Eastern Conference Finals. They beat the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins each in five games.
Tampa Bay has responded to losses quite well, overcoming a 6-2 barrage in Game 1 to the Bruins. After that, they allowed only seven goals — with three of them coming in Game 5. Even factoring in the five goals allowed to start the Bruins series, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is giving up 2.20 goals per game. He’s allowed only one goal in four of the Lightning’s 10 outings.
The offense, meanwhile, has been hot too. They rank second during the playoffs in goals per game with 3.50. Interestingly enough, the Capitals are first.
New York Rangers South
In 2015, the Capitals blew a 3-1 lead to lose to the New York Rangers in seven games. Three of those Ranger players — forward J.T. Miller and defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi — are now on the Lightning.
The Rangers South connection doesn’t stop there. The Lightning have two more ex-Rangers — Ryan Callahan and Anton Stralman — who were apart of New York’s Stanley Cup run in 2014.
McDonagh and Miller, in particular, were acquired at this year’s trade deadline. So what’s the deal?
“The biggest thing was that they’re competitors,” coach Jon Cooper told ESPN. “We need guys that can play hard, can play against big players and have played in big spots before. They check all the boxes.”
Balance, balance balance
Tampa Bay isn’t a team that solely relies on Kucherov and Stamkos. They had six players who scored more than 20 goals this season. By comparison, the Capitals had three.
The Lightning rolls out a balanced lineup, including on its blue line. Defenseman Victor Hedman is a likely Norris finalist, the league’s version of defensive player of the year. Hedman has six assists in the playoffs, while McDonagh has five. Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev has scored twice.
Weaker penalty kill
If there is an area where the Lightning seem vulnerable, it’s the penalty kill — where they’ve killed off a sixth-worst 74.2 percent of penalties in the playoffs. Of Tampa Bay’s 25 allowed goals, eight have come on the power play.
In the regular season, Tampa committed the fifth-most penalties.
The Capitals, meanwhile, have had the league’s second-best power play in the playoffs, scoring 30.4 percent of their opportunities. Forward T.J. Oshie has four of the Capitals’ 13 power play goals.
Kucherov has a history with Holtby
Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby’s struggles in February can be summed up with two words: No look.
During a Feb. 20 meeting, Kucherov scored an eye-dazzling no-look goal on a breakaway. Kucherov’s deke faked out Holtby, letting the puck slide through his legs.
To make matters worse for Holtby, Kucherov had pulled off a similar move a month earlier in the All-Star game.
Holtby, understandably, was upset, smacking his stick across the ice.
“The key to getting better is to learn from your mistakes and obviously I didn’t do that,” Holtby said then. He finished the month 2-5-2.
Holtby, though, has been a different goaltender in the playoffs. He has a .926 save percentages and a 2.06 goals against average. He’ll need to continue that dominance for the Capitals to advance.