Something that brewed and bubbled up toward the end of the regular season seems ready to percolate and boil over.
For the past four years, the Washington Capitals have all but owned the Southeast Division, cruising to titles in each of the past four seasons.
But for the first time since 2007-08, the Capitals had to work for their crown this season. For two months, the Lightning sat atop the division, at one time by as many as six points, before Washington passed Tampa Bay with a 17-4-1 stretch to close the season.
The Capitals won the division by four points.
The final four meetings of the season, however, sparked an actual rivalry, something the Southeast Division has lacked. Tampa Bay shut out Washington twice in January with goaltender Dwayne Roloson, 1-0 in overtime in his Lightning debut and 3-0 in his home debut. Washington won the final two games, including a 2-1 shootout victory in their last meeting March 7.
As the teams get ready to square off tonight in the Eastern Conference semifinal, however, the rivalry takes on a whole new flavor. The stakes are much higher than a division title.
"I think it got pretty good there at the end (of the season) just because both teams were vying for first place,'' Washington coach Bruce Boudreau told ESPN.com on Thursday. "I think the last four games we had against them were pretty serious games. I think this takes it another step.''
The Capitals are the established team in this budding rivalry, a Stanley Cup favorite for the past couple of seasons. Their 2008-09 season ended in disappointment with a second-round loss to Pittsburgh. Last year, the top-seeded Capitals lost in the first round to Montreal despite holding a 3-1 series lead.
This year, with a new defensive style of play, Washington is again an odds-on favorite to reach the Stanley Cup final with stars such as Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and defenseman Mike Green.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher didn't waste much time placing the favorite tag on the Capitals for that reason.
"We are the new kids on the block here, let's not kid ourselves, they are the powerhouse, they are the monsters and we are the little naggers biting at the ankles,'' Boucher said. "It's Goliath against David, that's what it is, and we better get our slingshots ready.''
The teams met once before in the postseason, a 4-2 series victory by Tampa Bay in 2003. Facing each other a second time will no doubt bring the emotional level up.
"The playoffs tend to bring the emotions to a new level, and I think the first game is going to be tough and the last game is going to be tougher, as it certainly was against Pittsburgh,'' Boucher said. "I'm sure this series won't be any different. I don't plan for it to be any different."
Tampa Bay does not have much time to get over the emotions of a first-round victory against the Penguins, with just one day between their intense Game 7 win in Pittsburgh and the start of the second round. Yet, the Lightning know what awaits them tonight.
"It's going to be fun, we are all excited and we are pumped up,'' center Steven Stamkos said. "We have to face a team that has been resting for a couple of days now that we had a pretty heated rivalry with for the division this year, and had some tight games, so it should be a great series.''
And while the so-called hatred of a series may not be felt — yet — there seems to be plenty of respect for the opponent at the onset.
"I can't wait, this is going to be a fun one,'' said Lightning left wing Sean Bergeheim, who scored the winning goal in Game 7 against Pittsburgh. "Definitely, there is a little bit of a rivalry there, and it's just going to be fun, physical definitely, and it's two very talented teams.''