The Washington Capitals completed their first round series fairly quickly in comparison to the rest of the Eastern Conference, who all completed their series in seven game sets. Now the Caps prepare for their second round opponent, Southeast Division rival Tampa Bay Lightning.
The two teams last met in the playoffs in 2003 in the first round. Even though Washington was the lower seed in that series, they were dubbed the favorites, as until Games 3 and 4, they were undefeated at home against Tampa Bay. Up 2-0 in the series, the Capitals then lost four straight games, including Game 6: the game where Martin St. Louis sealed the deal in a 2-1 triple-overtime victory on Easter Sunday. The Lightning would then go on to lose against the eventual 2003 Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils. The following year, the Bolts would win the Stanley Cup over the Calgary Flames.
Moving forward to the 2010-2011 season, few of those players from the 2004 Stanley Cup squad remain, such as St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. But the Lightning have added Steven Stamkos to their arsenal this time around, and after defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1, the Bolts are primed for a bit of trouble for the Capitals.
This season, the series ended up being 4-1-1 (one win via shootout) for the Caps in six division regular season matches. The one caveat in the record against Tampa is that Washington did play them in almost every phase Washington went through during the year. As I mentioned about a hundred times before, the Capitals went through a system adjustment, which included moments of both struggles and triumphs for the Caps. The scores went as follows: 6-3 Caps, 6-0 Caps, 1-0 in OT for the Bolts, 3-0 Bolts, 5-2 Caps, and a 2-1 Caps shootout win.
In those games players who have stood out for Washington include Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin. Semin has seemed to have found his element this year and finally has shown up consistently for the Capitals. In the six games, Semin recorded two hat tricks in the first two games against the Lightning this season, and nabbed the game-tying goal with five and a half remaining in the third period to give the Caps a chance to win in the last game between the two.
The Capitals are up against a team they played fairly well against during the season, unlike last round. The Caps will need to make sure of a couple of things moving forward:
- Containing Key Players: Steven Stamkos finished the regular season with 45 goals and 91 points. So his early postseason struggles were confusing to some. But not to worry, Stamkos returned to form in Game 3 of the first round, scoring his first goal of the playoffs and ending that game with two goals and one assist. While Stamkos was “sleeping” though, Martin St. Louis made it a point to pick up any slack, ending the last series with eight point (four goals and four assists). Steve Downie and even Simon Gagne, who had a struggling regular season, provided some scoring, supporting St. Louis and Stamkos through the series. Essentially, all of this means that Washington has its hands much more full than in the last series in terms of defensive responsibilities. Going down and blocking shots will be huge here, as the Lightning will likely put up a significant number of shots on the Caps’ chosen goaltender.
- Getting a Head-start: During the season between the two teams, as mentioned before, the Capitals had a tendency to get off to a slow start against the Lightning specifically. As was the case in the Rangers series with a premier goalie in Henrik Lundqvist, the Lightning’s Dwayne Roloson can win games for the Bolts and make it very difficult to get pucks past him, even if the defense can be shaky at times. In fact, Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau said about Roloson, “I’ve played against him too many times and when he gets in that zone, no matter what happens, he’s impossible to beat.” In order for the Caps to avoid this, getting ahead on shots and making sure not to fall behind in shots will be key in this series. It would bode well for Washington to keep an aggressive forecheck on Tampa Bay to gain an offensive edge, and attack early, as the number of blocked shots both teams will have will remain a factor in this series as it did in Round 1 against the Rangers.
- Goaltending: As Keara Dowd wrote in her latest, Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth has proven his critics wrong, and has shown that even a rookie goaltender can remain calm and collected, even in the face of trouble, such as allowing two goals in seven
seconds down 3-0 in Game 4. He got himself together, and gave his team the chance to come back to tie and eventually win in a huge road playoff game, even as his defense collapsed earlier in the game. With a much more powerful offense and his counterpart also a focused goalie, Neuvirth has to maintain that poise he had in the Rangers series. To raise the stakes a little, the only game Neuvirth started against Tampa Bay was the sixth and final game, only to leave the game in the second period down 1-0 because of an equipment issue after receiving a puck to the mask. With that in mind, if anything went wrong in this series, Boudreau might go with one of the other two goalies: Semyon Varlamov or, since the Caps’ AHL affiliate team is no longer in the playoffs, Braden Holtby, who allowed no goals in relief of Neuvirth in the final matchup, could get the nod for a game. Nonetheless, no matter who starts in net, the Caps must remain sharp in this respect to match Roloson and the flying Lightning players.
- Stick to the Game Plan: Too many times this season, the Capitals would be down a goal or two against an opponent, and they would try to then deviate from the plan at hand and make the situation worse. Scott Hannan said after the 3-0 loss to Tampa Bay during the regular season, “We didn’t get anything started, we pressed.” Hannan continued, “I think we try to do too much sometimes. And it cost us.” However, in the last series against the Rangers, the Caps have been down a goal, and even three goals in Game 4, and the Caps were able to come back. That was due in part to sticking to their game plan and not getting flustered in the face of trouble. With the Lightning being a significantly more skilled team with a powerful offensive strike, the Caps could be tempted to want to deviate from a more defensive style and try to outscore them. But if a plan is in place to stop the Lightning, and they get down only a goal or two, a game plan will be in order, and much like the final game of the season between the Bolts and Caps, it is possible to battle back even against a strong offense with a goaltender with swagger.
- Special Teams: Tampa ended the season ranked sixth in power play efficiency at 20.5 percent. Well, bump that up a few notches to a whopping 29 percent, scoring eight times with the extra man. While the Capitals’ power play looked abnormally dismal during the regular season, their power play during the playoffs seemed to have woken up in the later portion of the first round. Their power play gave way for some key goals in their victories over the Rangers. Washington will have to keep it that way if they want to get an early jump on Tampa Bay, and also stay out of the box to give Tampa very few opportunities to get ahead on the power play. On the contrary, both the Capitals and Lightning have excelled at the art of the penalty kill this playoffs. While Washington was number two in this department during the regular season, the Lightning had a fairly decent penalty kill on their own then. What may have factored in such success for Tampa Bay though may have been the fact that Pittsburgh has struggled to have a working power play, even with Crosby in the lineup. So Washington would still have the advantage in killing penalties, which means they have to continue to use that to their benefit.
The Lightning are a drastically different team from the Rangers; thus, it is difficult to assess whether the Capitals could keep up their confident and determined streak. At least Washington has rid itself of the title of “first round chokers” and are now over that hump, looking to finally get over other humps to plow through the long and hard road through the playoffs. A huge key to the team’s future success in the playoffs will be their attitude. It doesn’t seem as though Washington will get cocky, or even wants to think about getting over-confident. If the Caps can channel their “Stay Angry” motto and beat the Lightning, audiences should be primed for a special season by the Capitals. Again, I am here to provide my opinion, and I see the Capitals prevailing against a tough and talented Lightning squad in six games. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, to see this series go the distance in seven (then again, after that exciting first round, what else is there to surprise us?). Nonetheless, Washington should be able to come out on top and prepare to face either the Philadelphia Flyers or Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final.