Seeds: No. 5 vs. No. 1; Lightning beat Pittsburgh in seven games; Capitals beat the New York Rangers in five games
Can the Washington Capitals reach the conference finals for the first time since Alex Ovechkin and Bruce Boudreau came to town, or will the Tampa Bay Lightning be this season's giant-killer like the Montreal Canadiens of a year ago? The Capitals will be rested and confident after dispatching the Rangers in five games, while the Lightning are coming off a Game 7 victory at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center on Wednesday night.
Right here, right now: Washington went 4-1-1 in six meetings against Tampa Bay during the regular season. The Bolts shut out the Caps in both of their victories -- a 1-0 overtime win on Jan. 4 and a 3-0 triumph eight days later. Washington scored five goals or more in three of the games. Both wins came after the Bolts acquired goaltender Dwayne Roloson from the Islanders.
This will be the second time these teams have met in the postseason. Tampa Bay defeated Washington in six games in 2003 in an opening-round matchup. It was the Lightning's first-ever series victory.
Coulda Woulda: Neither team knew who its second-round opponent would be until the final horn sounded in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. There was a chance the Caps would face the Canadiens, but Nathan Horton's OT goal ended that opportunity. Washington finished its series with the Rangers on Saturday and had to wait four days before finding out who it would play.
The Capitals might have had a chance at redemption had they ended up with Montreal or Pittsburgh -- the two teams that have knocked them out of the playoffs the previous two seasons. The Penguins in particular have tormented the Caps in the postseason.
Who needs Game 1 more: The Lightning hope to ride the momentum from Game 7 against Pittsburgh and catch the Capitals a bit rusty from their layoff. Washington would be wise to be ready for Game 1 and collect wins in both games at Verizon Center to start the series.
While the Capitals won two of three games at the St. Pete Times Forum during the regular season, they're facing a team that staved off elimination three straight times to oust the Penguins. Winning Games 1 and 2 would assert team's control and have a perhaps-emotionally tired Bolts squad thinking they might not have enough left to make it two big upsets in a row.
The Great Unknown: How effective will Mike Knuble be for the Caps? The veteran forward, sidelined for the final two games against the Rangers, expects to play at some point during this series, but time will tell on if his hand/wrist can hold up enough to help Washington advance to the conference finals.
Finish line: Washington looked like a more mature, more committed club when it discarded the Rangers in the opening round. The games were close, but save for a short spell in the second period of Game 4, the Capitals played like a team that can withstand the mental and physical pressure of the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- something that wasn't the case in 2010. Michal Neuvirth had a strong first round and upstaged one of the best goalies in the world. He'll have to do it again against Roloson, who is 6-0 in elimination games.