Caps, Lightning have stage set for budding rivalry

WASHINGTON -- There hasn't been a true rivalry to emerge from the Southeast Division, but there could be hope for one developing between the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning.

The division has only been around for 12 seasons and four of the five teams have been in their respective cities for less than two decades, not enough time to build a history of animosity. But the biggest reason is probably the teams from the Southeast haven't met each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs very often.

This series will only be the second between Southeast foes since the division was formed -- the other was between these same two teams in 2003.

"The rivalry is always more magnified when the teams are fighting for the same things," Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis said. "In '03 both teams had good years and were fighting for that first place in our division. That creates a little more intensity and rivalry throughout the season because you have big games just to try to gain ground on that team. It was the same thing this year."

There is the potential for rivalries to develop in the division because of geographical proximity. Carolina and Washington started to build one during the 2007-08 season when the Capitals rallied to overtake the Hurricanes for the division crown. Tampa Bay and Florida have yet to be successful at the same time -- they've only made the postseason in the same year once.

The reason why the ingredients are there for Washington and Tampa Bay goes beyond this season. Both rosters have young, talented players and the franchises expect to be playoff -- and maybe Stanley Cup -- contenders for the foreseeable future.

Washington lost that series to Tampa Bay in 2003 and decided to rebuild. Tampa Bay went on to the win the Cup the next season but also stumbled, and had to retool the roster with a new owner, general manager and coach prior to this season.

While the first postseason battle between Southeast clubs had little traction, these teams could certainly meet again in the postseason in the near future.

"I think it is going to be good," Lightning forward Ryan Malone said. "They are a solid young squad and have made some changes this year, but we're kind of the new kids on the block, so to speak.

"I don't think it is that big of a rivalry yet. I think down south it is tougher to get those rivalries going as much as elsewhere. Obviously they are in our division and we see them six times a year. For the most part it hasn't really felt like a true rivalry yet, so maybe this playoff series will get it started."

Washington bullied the other members of the division in the previous two seasons, collecting a second- and third-consecutive title with little suspense. This year was a big contrast.

Tampa Bay surged to the top of the division standings while the Capitals struggled in the middle of the season. The Lightning held the lead into March before a late-season charge by the Capitals helped them claim their fourth consecutive division crown.

"I think it got pretty good there at the end [of the season] just because both teams [were] vying for first place," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I think the last four games we had against them were pretty serious games. I think this takes it another step."

The Capitals won the first two meetings this season in convincing fashion, but that was before the Lightning added Dwayne Roloson, who shut them out in the next two matchups. Washington won the final two, with the last meeting going to a shootout.

"They were in first place in our division when we have eight-game losing streak. We knew if we wanted to be first we had to beat them," Alex Ovechkin said. "Every game was big battle for everybody. It was regular season and right now it is different."

Added St. Louis: "It seemed like every time we played them, it felt like we were trying to better our fate in the standings. We had it for a little bit and then they kind of took over. That helps create a rivalry, but even that is not to the magnitude of the playoffs. That alone is how you can build rivalries."