The Tampa Bay Lightning are a good hockey club. They have a deep and talented offense, are extremely efficient on the power play, have a veteran and tough defensive corps, employ one of the most obnoxious agitators in the game, and now have a savvy goaltender that just happens to own the Washington Capitals in his history.
Add in the fact the Lightning just bounced the Caps' arch-rivals from the post-season, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest the Caps will have their work cut out for them in the second round.
But there seems to be less hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth about this series than the first round. Maybe the fact that the Caps escaped indignity by surviving a first-round series has folks feeling, if not comfortable, a little less anxious anyway about the next round.
The stakes are obviously higher for the team. The stage is a little brighter. The schedule laid out is more difficult, with Games Two, Three and Four in a four night span. All these things should be making Caps fans even more nervous. But it doesn't seem to be.
Could the Caps ownership of the Southeast Division the last few seasons be clouding everyone's vision? Could it stem from even further back in history, as the Southeast still didn't even exist when the Caps heroes of our youth did battle in places like New York, Long Island, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? Could it be the simple idea that they play their home games in Florida?
Maybe the fact the Caps haven't played Tampa Bay in the playoffs since 2003 is a factor?
Yes, I'm sure all those biases come into play.
Perhaps the Caps regular season record of 4-1-1 over Tampa Bay, outscoring them 19-10 in the process, has something else to do with it.
The Bolts new ownership and General Manager Steve Yzerman are putting together something very formidable in the Bay, and we should not demean that effort at all. With a little luck, maybe this series will finally instigate a natural rivalry within the Southeast Division. That would be good for the division, good for hockey, good for the teams and fans involved.
But as it stands now, even national television coverage of this series is being hidden, with Games One and Two banished to Friday and Sunday nights, so that games featuring Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit can be seen in the most visible slots. And Game Three in Tampa has been set for 6:30 pm, when most D.C. residents are still stuck on the Beltway, 395, or one of the Parkways.
Maybe Tampa comes out tonight, still on a high from their opening round victory, and puts a scare into a rested, but perhaps rusty Caps team and that will get the nerves going again. Maybe Dwayne Roloson pitches a shutout, as he has done several times in the past against the Caps, and the butterflies that were there for in round one come back.
Caps fans should have a healthy dose of respect for the Lightning and their organization. They are certainly capable of playing well enough to advance to the Conference Finals, a place the Caps haven't reached since 1998. The Bolts led the division much of the season until the Caps went streaking in March. They had ten double-digit goal scorers and were sixth in the NHL in power play efficiency in the regular season and third in the playoffs so far.
It's a team full of veterans, from Vinny Lecavalier to Martin St. Louis to Ryan Malone to Steve Downie to Pavel Kubina to the ancient one, Roloson, in goal. Oh, and that Stamkos kid is pretty good too.
In several publications, I predicted the Caps would dispatch the Rangers in five games and they made me look good for saying so. I will now go on the record once again, predicting this time Washington will take care of business in six games.
Enjoy the games Caps fans.