|John Carlson blocks a shot in a November win over Tampa.|
Offense: There is no doubt in my or anyone else's mind that the Capitals have the offensive firepower on their roster to blow any opponent out of the water on any given night. Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Alexander Semin are a fierce trio, and they all have the talent to dominate a game. The Capitals also have secondary players who can score, and can expect scoring from any of their four lines. But for some reason, they have all struggled and are having below average years, and that has hurt the team. The Lightning, on the other hand, are pretty much a one-line team. But boy, is that line something fierce. Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Steve Downie are all perfect compliments to each other and together make arguably hockey's best and most productive attacking trifecta. The Lightning also have players who have shown offensive brilliance in the past, like Vinny Lecavalier, Simon Gagne, and Ryan Malone, but they too have struggled to find their groove this season, although they can all break a game open. EDGE: Lightning. Their best players are their best; the Capitals' have not been.
Defense: The Capitals have morphed from an offensive juggernaut to a team that has one of the best shutdown defenses in the league, as they are currently 5th in the league in goals allowed per game with 2.38, which is down from 2.85 last year. All of their defensemen have bought into Bruce Boudreau's system and have no defensive liabilities: they have good skating ability and size, and know what they are supposed to do. The Lightning, however, have few good defensemen and are 23rd in the league with 3.04 goals allowed per game. Their best defenseman, Victor Hedman, is only 20, has a bright future and can be great, but he is not consistent enough to be considered upper echelon yet. EDGE: Capitals. They have the ability to shut down anybody now, while the Lightning have to outscore their opponents on most nights.
Goaltending: The Capitals have three young, great goalies who have all proven that they can win at this level this season, and Varlamov has proven he can play well in the playoffs, too. The luxury for the Caps here is that if one gets hurt, they still have two very solid goalies for the games that they play. The Bolts do not have that. Dwayne Roloson is good and has playoff experience too, but he is old and is liable to fall apart at any time. Dan Ellis does not inspire confidence behind him, either. EDGE: Capitals. Youth and consistency take the cake here.
Special Teams: The Capitals are again the total opposite this season than what they were last year: awesome penalty kill, terrible power play. After leading the league in PP goals last year, they Capitals are now 25th in the league in that department; and after placing 28th in PP goals allowed last year, they are now 4th on that list. Their penalty kill has been simply fantastic all year and is their best asset right now; and they recently had a stretch of 27 consecutive kills broken. The Lightning, though, do not have that contrast: they are in the top 10 in both power play and penalty kill this year, and have players that are specialists on both those units, such as Steven Stamkos. EDGE: Lightning. The stats speak for themselves on this one.
Schedule: Both teams have heavy schedules over the next month and a half, particularly in March. March sees the Capitals play the Hawks, Red Wings, Lightning, Canadiens twice, and Flyers, as well as tough games in between those. The Lightning see the Hawks, Canadiens, Bruins, Penguins, and Hurricanes three times, but get to face the Senators three times during the month. The Lightning also have 4 more home games than the Caps over the rest of the season. EDGE: Lightning. No game is a given, for or against, but the Bolts are a team that are going to win most of the games they should, and they have more of those left.
Coaching/X-Factor: The Capitals have done this chase thing before under Bruce Boudreau, albeit three seasons ago, when they made the playoffs on the last day of the season. The Lightning are full of young players, and only two players remain from the team that won the Cup in '04: Lecavalier and St. Louis. That's more than the Caps, but all of the key players on the Caps have playoff experience, while few on the Lightning do. The Lightning are also led by a rookie coach (not to take anything away from Guy Boucher, he's great), and Bruce Boudreau has won the Jack Adams award as the league's top coach in the last three years. EDGE: Capitals. They have more playoff games played, they know how to win down the stretch, and they have the better and more experienced coach.
Verdict: It sure looks like this one is going to come down to the wire in the Southeast Division. Both teams are deserving of the Division title, and at this rate, it really is a toss-up which team will come home with the hardware. I think both make the playoffs, and I also think that the Capitals come home with the banner because I think their offense will wake up to complement their excellent defense. But it really could go either way, it is going to be fun to watch down the stretch.