- - Monday, May 14, 2018


The Capitals’ first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets seems like ages ago. So much has changed so quickly for Washington since the playoffs began.

But nothing good happened until the Caps fell into a deep hole, dropping the first two games and obliterating their home-ice advantage. They flew to Ohio as a desperate and determined team, with hopes but no certainty of playing again at Capital One Arena this season.

The rest of the story is wonderful, delirious history: Four wins in the next five games, followed by a triumph in the typically dreadful second round against the hated Pittsburgh Penguins.

Goodbye, curse. So long, hump. See you later, wall.

Washington was sky high without a plane Sunday as it returned from Tampa Bay, having thoroughly outplayed the No. 1 seed through two games of the Eastern Conference. Even without franchise cornerstone Nicklas Backstrom, the underdog Caps have been the better team in virtually every phase.

As it turns out, the 0-2 home start against Columbus was great. Coming back served as a booster shot for Washington’s confidence.

But that wasn’t the only benefit.

The same shot immunized the Caps against overconfidence as they enjoy being on top.

“It’s huge, but it’s not over yet,” captain Alex Ovechkin told reporters Sunday after Washington’s 6-2 win in Game 2. “It’s going to be hard. They have tremendous players over there and we just have to play the same way and don’t give them anything.”

Percentages are in the Caps’ favor. According to NHL.com, 41 teams have taken a 2-0 lead in the conference final/semifinals since 1975; only two of those teams failed to win the series.

Tampa Bay prefers looking at a different slice of history:

The Lightning lost the first two games at home against Washington in a 2003 first-round series, but won the next four contests, include a triple-overtime clincher at then-MCI Center.

“Gut check time,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos told reporters Sunday. “Let’s see who we really are. We haven’t had to really deal with [adversity] so far in the playoffs. Now we are, so we’ll see what type of team we are.”

The team we’re watching hasn’t been as advertised.

Tampa Bay, not Washington, was supposed to be faster and deeper. Few prognosticators outside the DMV picked Washington to prevail against a squad in the conference finals for the third time in four years. The Lightning needed just five games apiece to advance against New Jersey and Boston, while the Caps supposedly spent themselves celebrating their second-round victory.

But the series hasn’t been close.

Washington didn’t give up a five-on-five goal Sunday, overcoming Tampa Bay’s power-play tallies that resulted from bogus penalties. In each contest, the Caps have struck the Lightning first and in flashes. Six seconds remained in the opening period of Game 1 when the lead became 2-0. They led just 28 seconds into Game 2 and extended the margin with just three seconds left in the middle period.

Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, a Vezina Trophy finalist and rock solid through the first two rounds, has given up 10 goals on 62 shots. Washington’s Philipp Grubauer was less leaky before being pulled in the Columbus series. And Tampa Bay’s defensemen aren’t helping their netminder, subjecting him to multiple odd-man rushes.

“For a team that’s been used to being able to make some plays, we sure haven’t made them in these two games,” Lightning coach John Cooper told reporters. “It’s very uncharacteristic of us. That’s the difference. They’ve made plays, we haven’t. And it’s cost us.”

No matter the cost, the Caps can’t afford to be presumptuous when the series resumes at Capital One Arena.

Considering all the misfortune since 1998 — the last time Washington advanced this far — nothing can be ruled out. Blowing a shot at the Stanley Cup after a 2-0 lead in the conference finals would be a sick, cruel twist of the knife after the Caps slayed their Pittsburgh demons.

“We’ve gone through some stuff this year early in the playoffs and we’ve learned from it,” coach Barry Trotz told reporters. “We have a real good group right now that understands to get back in the moment, don’t get too far from the center point, and keep focused on the task at hand. Stay in the moment.”

This moment is a 180-degree turn from that two-game juncture last month.

Regardless, the result against Columbus is a reminder for the Caps:

Stay on guard.

• Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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