When Guy Boucher said it would be “a huge failure” if the Capitals lost to Tampa Bay in Round 2 of the playoffs, the Lightning coach was merely stating the obvious. The Caps have been on the launching pad for four years now and have been the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the last two. It’s about time they blasted off. You know it. I know it. They know it. The whole league knows it.
Besides, Boucher was just doing what his counterpart, Bruce Boudreau, did in the first round with his disparaging remarks about Madison Squalid — I mean Square — Garden. He was trying to push somebody’s button (any somebody and any button). And Boudreau was good enough to play along by taking exception to Boucher’s “David against Goliath” comparison of the Lightning and Caps. After all, there were no giants in the East this season, not with only 14 points separating first and eighth place.
Still, it’s crucial to the Capitals that they win this series — for their psyche, their self-esteem, however you want to psychoanalyze it. They’ve certainly been building toward it for long enough … and experienced their share of growing pains along the way. Their five-game icing of the Rangers was a nice start to the postseason, but only that. Now, as the competition improves, they have to raise their level of play and make a deep run. They’re too talented not to.
They didn’t do themselves any favors, though, by dropping the opener to Lightning 4-2 Friday night at Verizon Center. It figured to be a dangerous game for the Caps, inasmuch as they were coming off five days of inactivity — and Tampa Bay was still riding the adrenaline rush of rallying from a 3-1 series deficit against the Penguins.
And sure enough, the Caps, so solid defensively in Round 1, played just loosely enough to cough up the home-ice advantage. A three-minute stretch at the end of the second period, when they lost a 2-1 lead by giving up goals to Steve Downie and Steven Stamkos, proved most damaging. Though they had some chances after that, they couldn’t put the puck in the net.
“River hockey,” Boudreau called it. “It was reverting back to an older day” — a time when the Capitals’ attention to detail wavered from night to night.
“I think we got the lead,” Jeff Schultz said, “and figured we needed to score more instead of kinda protecting it” — as they’d done in the previous series and in the last few months of the regular season.
“We started trading chances,” Jason Chimera said, “which is not what we want to do.”
There might be a reason for this behavior, though. The Lightning, lest we forget, are nothing like the Rangers. They have Stamkos, one of the top goal scorers in the NHL, and enough firepower to pour in eight goals in Game 5 against the Pens. It’s understandable if the Caps were thinking: “Two goals might not be enough.” Most nights against Tampa Bay, it’s not.
Indeed, both clubs scored off turnovers in the first five minutes — first Lightning wing Sean Bergenheim, then the Capitals’ Alexander Semin. That’s more first-period goals than were scored in all five games of the New York series. This series just has a much different feel to it.
But the Capitals still need to stick to their grind-it-out, both-ends-of-the-ice plan and wait for their opportunities. If they deviate from that, they’re asking for trouble — and they got it Friday night. Granted, there was some happenstance to Downie’s score, which caromed crazily off Scott Hannan’s stick, but Stamkos’ goal came on the last of three straight power plays for the Lightning; and none of the penalties (Boyd Gordon for slashing, Matt Hendricks for interference, Chimera for roughing) were particularly good ones for the Caps.
After that, probably the best chance the Caps had to tie it came when Nicklas Backstrom had an open left side of the net in third period. But Backstrom couldn’t bang it home — just as he hasn’t for 14 games now. The miss was yet another sign his goal-less streak is beginning to wear on him.
“I should have just put it in,” he said. “That’s what happens when you struggle.”
The Capitals themselves aren’t Officially Struggling — not after one game, anyway. (And not when one of the Tampa Bay goals came on a deflected shot and another was an empty-netter at the end.) But the Caps have to get back to what has been working for them: patient, tight-checking hockey.
They’re still the more-rested team, which should serve them well as the series progresses. There are back-to-back games in Tampa, remember, on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. “That doesn’t help us,” Boucher said.
But what he said a couple of days ago still stands. There’s no getting around it. If the Capitals don’t win this series, it’s “a huge failure.”