Whenever the Washington Capitals traveled to a different Canadian city in the last month of the regular season, coach Bruce Boudreau was asked about his team’s new defensive style and he repeatedly said his players take satisfaction out of winning 2-1 and 3-2 rather than 6-5. That’s what got them here, to the second round of the playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But in Game 1 on Friday night, that commitment to tight defensive hockey was replaced by that old style of what Boudreau called “river hockey.” And, of course, a loss.
“I think they just got caught up in wanting to score when it was 2-1, thinking it was going to be easy, wanting to make it 3-1, 4-1 rather than just wanting to batten down the hatches and be patient for opportunities,” Boudreau said.
That was the message after the Caps fell behind in a series for the first time in these playoffs — that they need to simply remember their winning system and stick to it. While not a complicated process, doing that involves multiple layers and facets of the game.
In other words, there’s a lot to fix for Sunday night’s Game 2.
“We just have to stick to our game plan, and we got away from it [Friday] night and got away from our strengths and it cost us,” center Jason Arnott said.” The thing is staying out of the penalty box. We can’t take penalties against these guys. They got a great power play and it cost us last night. Those two things it’s good things that we can correct and be ready to go [Sunday].”
Tampa Bay’s power play bit the Caps late in the second period when the game was unraveling, but one unsuccessful penalty kill isn’t as big an issue as the power play. On their five chances in Game 1, the Caps allowed as many short-handed shots as they got power-play shots.
Often, they struggled to get set up, too. Boudreau conceded his team got outworked, especially on the power play.
“The natural instinct is ‘Oh, we’ve got a man up, it’s a goal-scoring opportunity,’” Boudreau said. “But the whole thing of it is if the penalty killing works harder than the power play, that usually nullifies your man advantage.”
But five-on-five the Caps struggled, too. The patience versus the Lightning’s neutral zone defense that developed over the six meetings between the teams was not there, and it hurt dearly.
“They play such a patient and they play that 1-3-1 and they just sit back,” defenseman Mike Green said. “We dump the puck a lot, but there’s a lot of times where we were dumping it and they were just getting it back and making plays into the other zone. I think at that point we tried to do a little more than just dump.”
Trying to do too much is a common saying around hockey locker rooms, and while the Caps didn’t harp on “keeping it simple,” they are talking about staying patient — against the 1-3-1 trap and against veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson.
But players also understand there’s a lot of work to be done if the Caps hope to even the series.
“I think we just all have to be better — period — in every aspect of the game,” forward Matt Bradley said. “For whatever reason I don’t think we played our best as a team and individually and you can’t do that in the playoffs or you won’t win games.”