Late last season there was a discussion about key rivalries in the NHL. Most people jumped to the conclusion that the Tampa Bay Lightning's number one rival was the Florida Panthers, despite the Cats being rooted in a decade of ineptitude. The answer that came out of the Lightning's dressing room however, pointed farther north, straight at Washington D.C.
The Lightning and Capitals have been beating the hell out of each other over the last few years, with the Caps generally having the upper hand. But after going back and forth with the Capitals for the lead in the Southest Division this season, the Lightning have won the only battle that really matters this year: they have eliminated the Capitals from the Stanley Cup playoffs on the strength of a 5-3 win in Game Four, sweeping the vaunted Red Machine in four straight.
They beat them on the strength of timely scoring, a sound defensive structure, and world-class special teams.
For the Lightning, this means a rest and a chance to get wounded soldiers like Pavel Kubina and Simon Gagne healthy again while they wait for the victor of the other Eastern Semifinal series, either Boston or Philadelphia.
For the Capitals, it is time to decide not whether to change, but how much.
Media buzz has suggested that Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau would lose his job if his team was swept, and when asked about his job security at this morning's media meeting, he called the question "stupid." Whether it was or not remains to be seen.
Speaking as a viewer from outside the two markets involved in the match, it seemed to me that the media zeroed in on the Capitals and how much pressure they were under, and how they were under-performing. Mentions of the Lightning usually involved praising or maligning Guy Boucher's 1-3-1 system, or praising Martin St. Louis, the resergence of Vincent Lecavalier, or the performance of the third line of Sean Bergenheim, Dominic Moore, and Steve Downie.
But the Capitals chatter will die away now. We won't have to listen to moaning about whether Alex Ovechkin will push his team over the hump, or ravings about what an abject failure Niklas Backstrom has been in these playoffs.
Now the focus is purely on the Tampa Bay Lightning.
GM Steve Yzerman has been very quiet this postseason, but he must be ecstatic about the playoff performances of the players he's acquired: Eric Brewer, Dwayne Roloson, the aforementioned Moore and Bergenheim, and even Marc-Andre Bergeron, who scored the goal that stood up as the game winner in the deciding game, all came through.
For the Caps it's time for apologies, excuses, and teeth-grinding. In Tampa Bay it's time for celebration and rest.
At least for a few more days.