Series breakdown: Capitals (1) vs. Lightning (5)
Regular season series: Capitals won 4-2
Nov. 11: Lightning 3 at Capitals 6
Nov. 26: Lightning 0 at Capitals 6
Jan. 4: Lightning 1 at Capitals 0 (OT)
Jan. 12: Capitals 0 at Lightning 3
Feb. 4: Capitals 5 at Lightning 2
March 7: Capitals 2 at Lightning 1 (SO)
Snapshot: Given that the Capitals hadn't played in a postseason series that lasted fewer than seven games since 2003, perhaps it was ironic that they were the only team in the East that wasn't pushed to the max in a furious first round. Will the extra time off help? In many ways, it definitely should. Not only did the Caps get time to let their minds and bodies recover after disposing of the Rangers in a swift five games, they watched the Lightning play seven grueling games against the Penguins. That's seven-games worth of tape to dissect and ample time to put together a game plan to take down their division rivals.
The Lightning, like the Caps, can be considered extremely top-heavy. They play a unique 1-3-1 defensive system under coach Guy Boucher, and over the course of a seven-game series, it may be easier for teams to solve it down the stretch. Certainly, Pittsburgh wasn't able to figure out how to do it in the first round, but the Pens were also without their top two offensive weapons. The Caps, however, have enough firepower to arm a battalion, and unlike former iterations, have proved that they're able to win in more than one way.
That's not to say that the Lightning aren't stacked up front. Martin St. Louis is tied for third with eight playoff points, and depth contributions from Steve Downie and Simon Gagne (each with seven points) have made Tampa Bay's offense a fearsome force this spring. With snipers like Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier, the Bolts' power play enjoyed a 29.6 success rate in the first round, which is even more spectacular given that it came against the best penalty killing team in the league. It will be compelling to see how they fare against Washington's second-ranked PK. The Caps, however, averaged the second fewest penalty minutes per game (9;36) in the first round, and so maintaining that discipline will be the most effective way to shut down Tampa's power play.
Spotlight's On: Steven Stamkos. Maybe the 21-year-old center just has a penchant for slow starts. After being drafted No. 1 overall in 2008, it took him a year to get his bearings before he showed the NHL just how talented he is by scoring 51 goals during his sophomore season. In his first playoff series, Stamkos finished with a respectable four points, but three (and both of his goals) came in an 8-2 drubbing of the Penguins in Game 5. He admitted early in the series that he didn't fully realize the intensity of postseason hockey, but perhaps with some postseason experience now under his belt, the Markham, Ont., native can start to feel comfortable and be a difference-maker.
X-Factor for the Lightning: Dwayne Roloson. The 41-year-old goalie's record when facing elimination is now 6-0 after he stonewalled the Penguins for three straight games to help Tampa Bay advance. Roloson allowed just four goals in those elimination games, including a shutout in Game 7. Those are the kind of inspired goaltending performances teams need throughout the playoffs. His .949 postseason save percentage is the best of any starter, and for Tampa Bay, not having to worry about what's going on in their net is a luxury that not many teams enjoy -- especially these days.
X-Factor for the Capitals: Brooks Laich. Tampa Bay's aforementioned power play could be the difference (it ranked second in opportunities this season) and that makes a player like Laich even more valuable for Washington. A premiere penalty-killer, he's no slouch in the offensive zone, sharing the team lead with four assists, and with Mike Knuble still nursing an apparent hand injury, Laich could see more time on the Caps' top line. Depending on how coach Bruce Boudreau wants to match his lines, Laich could be used to shut down that potent Tampa Bay attack.
The Pick: Capitals in 6.
Phillips: Outfielders are on the move at MLB winter meetings
SI Now Live Wednesday December 11, 2013