Caps, Lightning know each other all too well

Series pairs Southeast Division rivals

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If the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs was any indication, familiarity breeds some entertaining hockey. That, and contempt, of course.

So welcome to the seventh game of the season between the Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday night, with plenty more to follow.

But after six meetings, the Caps and Lightning know each other perhaps too well.

“There aren’t going to be any surprises in this series, we all know the personnel and know the way they play, we know how skilled they are offensively and how great their goalie is,” forward Matt Bradley said. “It’s just a matter of having a good game plan and sticking to it.”

Knowing might not even be half of this series, as the Caps have spent five days without a game and the Lightning flew immediately to Washington after their Game 7 victory in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night.

Only after Tampa Bay beat Pittsburgh 1-0 did the Caps know who they were facing in the second round.

“It’s amazing, quite frankly, the difference of knowing who your opponent is and not knowing,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You feel like you’re just sort of waiting and lost in space, but it makes the series an awful lot closer, which it is anyway when you’re going against a team in your own division.”

That’s where the familiarity comes in handy. The Caps were able to spend Thursday’s practice and meetings gearing up for Tampa Bay’s dangerous power play (29.6 percent vs. the Penguins) and preparing for Lightning coach Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 neutral-zone trap.

Scott Hannan said for any Eastern Conference rival there’s enough film on opponents to get a feel for what they’re doing even without a lot of time to work on things. And Marco Sturm pointed out that finishing off the Rangers early and sitting back and watching the Penguins-Lightning series also provides for some advantage.

While the Caps might need some time to readjust to game action, there might be less of a feeling-out process that usually fills the first period of Game 1s.

“It’s just going to be a little faster paced out there. All the players are going to be a little bit better,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s different in the playoffs. But we played them six times this year, so hopefully we can get some advantage of that.”

During those six games, the Caps went 4-1-1 despite strong performances from Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson, who boasted a .949 save percentage and 1.77 goals-against average in the opening round against the Penguins. To put that into perspective, Michal Neuvirth had a .946 save percentage and 1.38 GAA vs. New York. But as Boudreau admitted, Tampa Bay features more “game-breakers” than the Rangers.

And while the Rangers and Caps built up a healthy hatred within a few games, Washington and Tampa Bay have been cultivating this rivalry all season. Caps players said chasing down the Lightning for much of the year set the tone for this showdown.

“The rivalry will be a little bit amped up,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We know what they’re like when they’re playing really good, and we know what they’re like when they’re not playing their best game.”

Yet that was just the regular season.

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