The Pittsburgh Penguins have been the main rival of Washington Capitals since the 1990’s and heated up when Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and were drafted in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The rivalry begins with the regular season and carries into the playoff matchups. Other major rivals for the Caps in the Metropolitan Division have included the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, although not like that with the Penguins.
Apparently, a new rivalry is rising although not with a team in the same division. It looks like the Tampa Bay Lightning are going be a frequent opponents for the Caps in the regular season and playoffs and a new primary rival.
Using the Capitals versus Penguins rivalry as an example, let’s analyze the Capitals versus Lightning as an emerging rivalry. The Caps and Bolts were division opponents when they were part of the Atlantic Division between the 1992-93 and 1997-98 seasons. During that period, neither of them won division titles. After an NHL realignment, they continued to be division competitors; now in the Southeast Division, which existed from the 1998/99 season to the 2012/13 season.
The Capitals were the Southeast Division team with the most division titles, winning seven out of 14 seasons, (2004-05 season wasn’t played due to the lockout). They won their first Presidents’ Trophy in 2010–and were the only Southeast Division team to do so. The Lightning won two Southeast Division titles during that time. In their first series as opponents during the 2002-03 season playoffs, the Caps were the runner-ups and the Lightning eliminated them in the conference quarterfinals by 4-2 in the series. The next season, the Caps didn’t qualify for the playoffs and the Lightning won the Stanley Cup.
After Ovechkin and Crosby were drafted they ignited a Capitals and Penguins rivalry as two of the League’s best forwards faced each other game after game. This was especially true in the 2008-09 season when the Penguins eliminated the Caps in the second round of the playoff series (4-3) and went on to win the Stanley Cup. It was painful because game seven was played in DC and the Caps lost in front of the home crowd. Many tears were shed over that loss.
The Caps fell to the Montreal Canadiens in the first playoff series round the following season (2009/10). That year the Pens would also fall out of contention as the Canadiens eliminated them in round two.
In the 2010-11 season, the Caps and Lightning met up for the second time in the playoffs. This time the Bolts swept the Caps in the conference semifinals. The Lightning pushed the Penguins out of the series in the first round and for a brief moment, the teams may have been on the same side hoping some team would stop the Lightning. The Bruins did that in the Conference Finals.
A New NHL Alignment
The NHL realigned divisions again for the 2013/14 season. The Capitals and Penguins remained in the same division- the Metropolitan – and the Lightning became part of the new Atlantic Division. Things quieted down in the Pens-Caps playoff rivalry for a few seasons until 2016 when Pittsburgh eliminated Washington in the second round and went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Pens repeated their performance the summer of 2017, again kicking the Caps out of the playoffs in round two. There were no kind words to be shared by these two teams.
A New Rivalry Begins
A crucial point of this shift in rivalry was the 2018 playoffs, during the Eastern Conference Finals. The Capitals and Lightning came into the playoffs with great players and expectations. The redeemed Caps beat the Penguins for the first time in in the playoffs in 20 years (4-2) and advanced to the Conference Finals. Here they met in Tampa Bay for the first game in the series. Even without home-ice advantage, the Caps managed to win games one and two at Amalie Arena. However, the Lightning won the next three games to make it a 3-2 series and the Caps faced the possibility of elimination for the first time in playoffs. The Game 6 at Capital One Arena was pretty much physical, setting a different tone to the series. When the Capitals won the conference title in Game 7 in Tampa, a new rivalry was solidified. Now the Caps have two teams to push past in the playoffs to get to the finals round.
Run for Stanley Cup 2018
The Capitals faced the Lightning just three times in the 2018/19 regular season. They are not division rivals; however, it was enough to light the fire for this new NHL rivalry. The Lightning won the first game on March 15 in Tampa Bay, by 6-3. A few days later, March 20, in a pretty physical game at Capital One Arena, the hard game was won by the Bolts again with a 5-4 final score. When the Capitals returned to Tampa Bay on March 30, they had not won any game against his new rival. Now, at Amalie Arena, the Caps came back the 6-3 win. In this final regular season game, Nicklas Backstrom, Tj Oshie and Alexander Ovechkin scored twice each. And, to give more fuel to its fire, Backstrom reached the 20-goal mark in the season and Ovi scored his 50th and, eventually, his 51th goal of the season.
Great skilled players, milestones, physical games, and resentments have been frequent recipes in the games between these great NHL franchises. This will make an Eastern Conference rematch during this seaosn’s playoffs exciting. Both teams have already guaranteed their tickets, clinching their playoff berths.
Let’s wait for the next chapter and the run for the Stanley Cup beginning April 7.