TAMPA, FLA. — It’s sort of funny to talk about the importance of experience in this year’s NHL playoffs.
After all, a first-year expansion team has already reached the Western Conference final having lost just twice. And now that the two-time defending champions failed to get out of the second round, the four winners of the past nine Stanley Cups (Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston) are all done and gone.
So what does that mean for the Washington Capitals, who after punching a ticket to the third round on Monday took a full day off to celebrate like it actually meant something?
According to Matt Niskanen, it did mean something. This is the first time in 20 years that the Capitals advanced past the second round of the playoffs — and the first time since 1994 that they defeated the rival Penguins. That’s a lot of heartbreak for homegrown veterans such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, as well as a championship-starved city that has never experienced a Stanley Cup parade.
“Guys were excited,” said Niskanen, who has not played in conference final since his rookie season in Dallas in 2008. “And really, we should have been. That’s a good accomplishment. Like I said, it was a hump for our team. Nobody’s been able to beat Pittsburgh for two years, so it’s a good accomplishment but we have to quickly turn the page.”
Handling the emotions will be the challenge for the Capitals as they head into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final. Less so for the Tampa Bay.
While Lightning captain Steven Stamkos spoke about how there is no “panic or nervousness” — this is the third time in four years that Tampa Bay is in the conference final — Washington’s players are in uncharted territory. With the exception of Brooks Orpik, no one has won a Stanley Cup. Few have even made it this far.
That experience should count for something. Still, no one really believes that Washington’s lack of experience will matter one bit this late in the playoffs, even if the players were still pinching themselves on Thursday.
“I think that’s getting blown out of proportion a little bit, in terms of the media talking about, ‘Wow they finally made it and there’s going to be a letdown,’” Stamkos said. “Those guys are just as excited to be here as we are. It’s a different team every year. It’s different players. The past is the past. I think you get into these situations and you want to win. They’ve had their time to celebrate; we’ve had our time to celebrate.
“It’s no easy feat getting to the conference final, but once that puck drops it’s two good teams trying to get to the Stanley Cup final. It will be a good series.”
It should be a good series because these were the two top teams in their respective divisions this season. Tampa Bay, which led the conference with 113 points, needed only 10 games to defeat the red-hot Devils and a Bruins team that finished one point out of first place. Washington, which had 105 points, overcame an early 0-2 series deficit against Columbus before overwhelming the Penguins in six games.
“We know we’re getting a very good opponent in Washington that’s played really well and beaten some really good teams to get here,” Stamkos said. “These guys are a very skilled group. They’re very deep, like we are. And we just need to continuing doing what we’ve done, which is stay disciplined and not turn pucks over and playing really good defensive hockey.”
Both teams come at you with an explosive offence, all-star goaltending and speed to burn. In the regular season, Capitals captain Ovechkin led all players with 49 goals, while Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov was one of three players to hit the 100-point mark.
“Just watching, I thought Tampa Bay grew their game,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz said. “They tightened everything up and they just come at you in waves. They have three lines that can score and they’ve got a grind line that’s effective and a (defence) that can jump in. They can do a lot of things.”
In some ways, the pressure is off the Capitals. Trotz spoke of a sense of relief amongst the players after getting past Pittsburgh and the second round. The weight has been lifted. To borrow a phrase out of Vegas, the Capitals are playing with house money. That can make them dangerous, as long as they don’t get overwhelmed by the situation.
“You don’t know if you’re going to get back here,” Trotz said, “so you want to make the best of it.”
The Lightning, meanwhile, have their own demons after losing in the final in 2015 and failing to get out of the third round two years ago. They are the favourites. Then again, they have experience in that department.
“What’s different now is nothing’s coming out of left field,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We kind of know what’s expected now especially after 2015. The farther you advance the media scrums get bigger and there’s more people around you where I think it would have been a little more eye-opening a few years ago. Now we know it’s coming.
“I guess that’s called experience.”
We’ll see if it actually means anything.
Hard-hitting and physical are not how most would describe the speedy and skilled Lightning. And yet, that’s quickly becoming their identity in the playoffs.
“They play the game hard,” Niskanen said. “You don’t think of them as a big team, but they’re competitive. They’re smaller, skilled guys compete for pucks and don’t shy away from dirty areas.”
In the first round, Kucherov set a physical tone with a violent hit on New Jersey defenceman Sami Vatanen that knocked him out of the playoffs. Since then, the team has made a point of finishing checks and limiting its opponent’s time and space.
“Honestly, I think it came up in the New Jersey series,” Cooper said. “The physical wear and tear that we were putting on them was working and it’s one of those recipes where you don’t change it. We’re not really looked at as a physical team, but we know we have it in us. And the one thing is it wasn’t just one guy, everyone was on board. Our game plan is to make it hard on teams.”
• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @Michael_Traikos