When Todd Reirden and Jon Cooper spent four months looking over video of the teams they coached this season, they saw almost polar opposites.
Reirden’s Washington Capitals started hot before their defensive game slipped. Cooper’s Tampa Bay Lightning took a while to warm up, then won 14 of 21 games before the NHL season was halted in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
”We played pretty darn well,” Cooper said. ”We were pretty happy with a lot of our game, and so now you have a chance to kind of tweak, investigate what went wrong and get better at it.”
Washington and Tampa Bay did enough to earn top four seeds in the Eastern Conference. When they face off Monday in Toronto in each team’s round-robin opener, the race for seeding will be on, with the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers also vying for the top spot in the East.
”We’re a team that has been battle-tested, and we’ve gone through adversity,” Reirden said. ”I like our team for a number of reasons, and one of them’s because of the experience that we have, and the fact that it is a much different scenario where we’re going right into playoff hockey.”
The Capitals won all three meetings this season, though they haven’t played the Lightning since Dec 21. That was before Washington traded for Ilya Kovalchuk and Brenden Dillon and Tampa Bay loaded up with deadline additions Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.
Since the Christmas break, the Lightning have the league’s top points percentage, and they take plenty of confidence into the restart.
”It’s really important to get our game on track right away,” forward Tyler Johnson said. ”We have to be feeling good about our game going into our playoff series.”
The last playoff series between these teams was an epic East finals showdown in 2018. The Capitals came back from a 3-2 deficit to win Game 7 in Tampa on the way to their first Stanley Cup.
”We’ve had our battles over the years,” Washington center Nicklas Backstrom said. ”Very skilled team. Seems like we’ve been matching up with them pretty good lately.”
Rookie goaltender Ilya Samsonov’s injury that kept him off Washington’s roster means the net belongs to 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby. The pending free agent is focused only on trying to deliver another championship and his desire to play every game will probably come to fruition with Samsonov out.
”That is hopefully the plan,” Holtby said. ”I think that is very reasonable. I think we’ve had enough time to rest and recover and put in some good work here to be in the right shape physically and mentally to go all out there and put everything into every game.”
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos missed the start of training camp 2.0 with an injury connected to the core muscle surgery he underwent in March. He was on the ice for a full practice Monday and is expected to be full go for round-robin play.
”I’ve been progressing, obviously had the surgery in March and kind of the ups and downs of a rehab,,” Stamkos said. ”Definitely the best I felt was (Monday) on the ice, so another step forward.”
Alex Ovechkin tied for the league lead in goals this season with 48, including two Oct. 29 in his only visit to Toronto. He has 26 goals in 28 NHL games – including two hat tricks – at what’s now known as Scotiabank Arena, where all Eastern Conference games will be played without fans.
Ovechkin is also primed for this ahead of his 35th birthday in September after working with his trainer during the time away from hockey.
”We kind of do some workout to be in shape and when we come back from Miami and be in D.C., we have ice and we still do workout off the ice,” Ovechkin said. ”I think I’m in pretty good shape right now.”
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