When the Capitals used to play a fast-paced, entertaining style they could usually compensate for mistakes by outgunning opponents. In Friday night's Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, that style returned — but mostly the negatives.
They turned the puck over in the neutral zone too often, showed a lack of patience on offense and generally couldn't stick to the defensive, tight-checking style that got them to the top of the Eastern Conference and through the first round. The result was a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay at Verizon Center that put them behind 1-0 in the series.
"You can't play river hockey, and I'm looking at this wasn't the way we play," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It was reverting back to an older day."
It certainly wasn't a winning recipe — a game full of mistakes including ill-timed drop passes ill-advised turnovers. But that wasn't the way it was all game; the Caps started slow but took over for the majority of the first and second periods. They built a 2-1 lead but then started getting away from their patience, aggressive attack.
"We got a little bit sloppy, had too many turnovers and they capitalized on them," right wing Eric Fehr said.
Tampa Bay turned the tide by never straying from its 1-3-1 trap and defensive system. When the Caps themselves strayed, it became a much different game. The Lightning tied the score on a fluky goal by Steve Downie that bounced off defenseman Scott Hannan's stick — and things snowballed from there.
Jason Chimera was whistled for roughing Pavel Kubina when he elbowed him behind the net, and Tampa Bay capitalized on its fourth power-play chance. Given the Lightning's power-play prowess (29.6 percent success rate vs. Pittsburgh), it seemed like a matter of time.
"I think we take too many bad penalties in second period and it cost us the game," Alex Ovechkin said.
Yet in the third period the Caps had plenty of chances, including two power plays. But on the first they didn't manage and shot and went offside on back-to-back plays on the second. By the end of the night, Washington was 0-for-5 with the man advantage and couldn't beat Dwayne Roloson, who made 26 saves.
Even-strength, the Caps struggled to get anything going against the Lightning after falling behind as Tampa Bay stuck to its system.
"They make it frustrating. They just hang back and you're trying to push, and they're very good at it," Boudreau said. "That's why when they get a lead, and they got a lead against Pittsburgh, they hold onto it."
While the Caps have come from behind many times this season, that's not an easy thing to do against Tampa Bay. And given that they controlled play for long stretches and had a lead early, they're left ruing missed opportunities that could have changed the momentum of the game and the series.
"I think we play very well the last 10 minutes in the first period and first 10 minutes of the second. We don't get the lead, we didn't play our game," Ovechkin said. "We, I think, played too cute and we take lots of penalties and it cost us.
"It's over and we have to get ready for next game."
Notes: Defenseman John Carlson got hurt in the second period and missed the final five minutes before intermission. He returned for one 36-second shift in the third but didn't play after that. Boudreau termed him day-to-day and is "hoping he can go Sunday." ... Lightning left wing Simon Gagne left in the first period with an apparent head injury after a clean Scott Hannan hit and did not return. Coach Guy Boucher said he was back at the hotel and will be re-evaluated Saturday, along with Kubina, who didn't return after the Chimera elbow.
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