Round two! Let’s set the stage for what we are talking about here. Including this season: thirty six seasons… 22 times in the playoffs… nine times making the second round. Winning the second round…
We’re getting into the thin air of Capitals history here, and if there is a theme to be had in the second round series about to unfold with the Tampa Bay Lightning, it would be, “The Right Stuff.” To borrow from the narrator in the film by that name…
"There was a demon that lived in the playoffs. They said if the Caps challenged him, they would die. Their sticks would freeze up, their skates would wobble wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at about May 15th on the calendar, four weeks into the post season, where the bad thoughts about seasons past and underachieving could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no Cap could ever pass. They called it the second round of the playoffs."
In Round Two we are going to get a clearer picture if this collection of players has “the right stuff” to achieve what no other Capitals team has accomplished. And in facing the test, the Capitals will be challenged by a familiar foe.
The View from 30,000 Feet
The Capitals and Lightning finished the regular season with similar results – wins (Caps 48/Lightning 46), points (Caps 107/Lightning 103), finishes (Caps 7-2-1/Lightning 7-3-0), home record (both with 25 wins), road record (Caps with two more wins). But how they got there represent two very different sets of numbers (click for larger version):
In the Lightning the Caps might be looking at a combination of a mirror and a time machine. Tampa Bay is clearly – in the season-long numbers (and hold that thought) – an offensive-oriented team. Fourteen times this season the Lightning scored five or more goals (the Caps had 13 such games, but seven of them came in the first 24 games of the year). They were an explosive team. And they could be exploded upon; 15 times they allowed five or more goals (it happened five times to the Caps, none in their last 30 games).
You would get the impression that the Lightning were a run-and-gun team of the sort that would look more than a bit like the Caps from last year. You would not be entirely correct in that conclusion, not in looking at the latter stages of the regular season. It would be easy to say that the Lightning changed their approach with the arrival of goaltender Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders (in trade for defenseman Ty Wishart in early January). In fact, Roloson won his first game with the Lightning, a 1-0 overtime shutout of Washington on January 4th. But an 8-1 pasting at the hands of the Penguins the following night and a six goal hemorrhage in a 6-1 loss to New Jersey four days later suggested that a “defense-first” mind-set had not quite yet arrived.
The epiphany might have come with consecutive losses by a combined 11-6 margin in mid-January to New Jersey (again) and Carolina. Those losses left the Lightning deadlocked with the Caps with 57 standings points, but it could not have looked good the way they got there. The Lightning followed that up with three consecutive Gimmick wins in which they allowed a total of only five goals. It propelled them to a six-game winning streak (their longest of the season) in which they allowed a total of only six goals, Roloson recording two shutouts along the way. Over the last 35 games of the season the Lightning allowed only 2.51 goals per game. Not the Caps, perhaps, but certainly an improvement over how they started the season.
But having said that, the Lightning have been a team that seems to have their focus wander, for whatever reason. They are a formidable club early in games – 51 times they scored the game’s first goal this season, and they outscored their opponents by almost one-third goal per game in the first two periods. But the Lightning didn’t finish games well, ending the season with the 24th best record when scoring first, a product of their giving almost all of the advantage earned in the first two periods of games in the third (a minus-0.29 goals per game in the third period).
The fault line on which this series might be settled is special teams, specifically the Tampa Bay power play. The Lightning are efficient on the power play (sixth in the league), but only one team has had more opportunities with the man-advantage this year than the 336 chances bestowed upon the Lightning. And only one team had more power play goals than the 69 scored by the Lightning. The flip side of this is that no team in the league allowed more shorthanded goals than did Tampa Bay – 16. The next highest number among teams surviving in the second round is the seven shorties allowed by Detroit and San Jose. It is worth noting that the Caps were 23-for-26 in penalty killing against the Lightning in the regular season (88.5 percent). If the Caps can whittle the chances per game down and keep that kind of efficiency, the Lightning will be in a world of hurt.
Washington and Tampa played head-to-head six times this season with the Caps winning four of the contests and getting shut out in the two losses (note: Caps score, Caps win). It was an interesting season series, sort of the season in microcosm…
Game 1: November 11, Capitals 6 – Lightning 3. If you looked at the first period alone, you might have thought is was a goaltender’s battle. Tampa’s Teddy Purcell had the only goal in the first period. Washington grabbed the lead in the second on goals by Tom Poti and Mike Knuble, but Tampa tied things up early in the third on a power play goal by Ryan Malone. After that, it was the Alexander Semin show. Semin scored three goals in 15 minutes (including an empty netter), and Alex Ovechkin added another to give the Caps the win going away.
Game 2: November 26th, Capitals 6 – Lightning 0. It was another case of little scoring early; John Carlson had the only goal of the first period, beating Tampa Bay’s Mike Smith barely three minutes into the contest. But there was that Semin fellow again, recording a natural hat trick in the second period to end the competitive portion of the evening. At the other end, Semyon Varlamov had a relatively easy time of it, seeing only 17 Lightning shots, stopping them all for his first shutout of the season. The Caps had two power play goals in the game, the last time they would have more than one in a game in almost three months.
Game 3: January 4th, Lightning 1 – Capitals 0 (OT). In the first game after the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, the Caps came out flat and ended the night flatter. Dwayne Roloson jumped between the pipes for the first time in a Lightning jersey, and he was the story, stopping all 34 shots he saw, 21 of them in the second period. Semyon Varlamov almost matched him save for save, but allowed a goal to Martin St. Louis in the third minute of the extra session. The Caps were outshot in that overtime, 5-0.
Game 4: January 12th, Lightning 3 – Capitals 0. Roloson made it two in a row in shutouts over the Caps but had a much easier time of it in Tampa. He faced only 23 shots for the contest, only five of them coming in the third period. He even chipped in an assist on the first, game-winning goal by Dominic Moore. Sean Bergenheim and Simon Gagne had the other goals for Tampa Bay.
Game 5: February 4th, Capitals 5 – Lightning 2
This one looked an awful lot like Game 1. Teddy Purcell – just as in Game 1 – got the game’s first goal in the game’s fourth minute. But Nicklas Backstrom put an end to that fun when he scored midway through the period to send the teams off tied at one for the first intermission. Brooks Laich and Alex Ovechkin scored less than two minutes apart in the second period, and although Brett Clark got one back on a power play before the second intermission, it was Backstrom one more time at 12:22 of the third to provide insurance and Jason Chimera to drive the stake through the heart of the Lightning with an empty netter in the last minute.
Game 6, March 7th: Capitals 2 - Lightning 1 (OT/SO)
It was a case of not how you start, but how you finish for the Caps in this one. Sean Bergenheim scored at 12:30 of the first period, and goalie Dwayne Roloson almost made it stand up, although the Caps were not exactly peppering him with shots – 17 over the first two periods. But Alexander Semin scored a goal – his seventh against the Lightning for the season – at 14:28 to tie the game and send it to overtime. The Caps did a better job of pressuring Roloson in the extra session, firing ten shots on goal. But none got through, and it was left to the Gimmick to settle this one, Alex Ovechkin netting the game winner and ending the season series… well, until now.
Against the other seven teams making the playoff eight in the Eastern Conference, the Caps went 17-6-7, including 4-1-1 against Tampa Bay. The Lightning went 16-11-3 against the other seven teams in the Eastern eight, including 2-3-1 against the Caps.
This is something of an unknown in this respect. Michal Neuvirth had only two appearances against the Lightning this season and only one decision, that coming in the teams’ first meeting back on Veterans Day (a 6-3 Caps win). He has four appearances against the Lightning in his career, winning both decisions on his record, but not with what you’d call sterling numbers – 3.38 GAA and a .905 save percentage.
On the other hand, Dwayne Roloson is an open book. This year he appeared four times against the Caps in a Lightning jersey and went 2-1-1 with a 1.23 GAA and .959 save percentage. That was fueled by two shutouts eight days apart in January. His performance was hardly a fluke. In 17 career appearances against the Caps he is 8-5-4, with a 2.11 GAA, a .923 save percentage, and four shutouts.
They have vaguely similar backgrounds, but Bruce Boudreau and Guy Boucher came through the coaching ranks at very different speeds. The journey of the Caps’ Bruce Boudreau is no secret to Caps fans. Four seasons in the IHL, primarily with Fort Wayne, three with the Mississippi Sea Wolves of the ECHL (where he won a title), nine seasons with three teams in the AHL, the last three in Hershey where he won a Calder Cup in his first year behind the bench and went to the finals in the following year. In his third year in Hershey he was called up to the Caps on Thanksgiving, where he led the Caps on an amazing ascent through the standings and into the 2008 playoffs, winning the Jack Adams Award in the process. Three more seasons, three more playoff appearances, although the results did not match the promise of that first season when the Caps looked poised to make a series of deep playoff runs.
Boucher climb through the coaching ranks was much quicker. From his beginnings as an assistant at McGill University in 1996, he moved to Rouyn-Nornada in the QMJHL, then to Rimouski in the Q in 2003. In 2006 he moved to Drummondville in the QMJHL, then made the leap to the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2009. In the 2009-2010 season at Hamilton he coached the Bulldogs to a 115-point finish and won the AHL coach of the year award. It was impressive enough to earn not one, but two NHL job offers. He declined the offer from the Columbus Blue Jackets to take the helm in Tampa this past season. And at age 39 he led the Lightning to their first playoff berth since 2007.
Both coaches are likely to get some Adams consideration this season, and both appear to have a very good feel for the talent they have and the ability to push the right buttons. Boudreau got Alex Ovechkin to buy into a defense-first concept 35 games into the season. Boucher got Vincent Lecavalier to be something of a goal scorer again, the former 50-goal scorer potting pucks at a 32-goal scoring rate for the season.
If there are questions about either, they would be Boudreau’s ability to adjust on the fly to adversity (a problem in the Montreal series last year), while for Boucher it is whether or not he is ready for prime time, this being only his second season behind the bench of a professional hockey team.
Players you expect to do well…and had better
Washington: Nicklas Backstrom
The Caps were able to cope with Nicklas Backstrom’s lack of offensive production in round one, given that the Rangers were so offensively challenged. Backstrom had a pretty good series in other aspect of the game, but one point in this series is not likely to cut it. He is 5-23-28, plus-11 in 26 career games against the Lightning. The offensive drought might have been an aberration. In 28 career playoff games coming into this post season, Backstrom was 12-18-30.
Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos
Steven Stamkos had 38 goals by the end of January, then went the last three months and 31 games with a total of seven. He did not exactly come alive in the first round series against the Penguins, recording a pair of goals in seven games. He is likely going to have to do better if the Lightning are to upset the Caps. It is certainly possible; he is 8-4-12 (but a minus-10) in 18 career games against Washington.
Players you might not think of as possible heroes…
Washington: Karl Alzner
If the Capitals are going to shut down the Lightning, especially on the power play, Alzner is likely to play a role. Of the eight goals scored by the Rangers in round one, Alzner was on the ice for five of them. But consider that Alzner also spent an average of 23:35 of ice time a game, and there were 48 defensemen who were on the ice for more goals in round one.
Tampa Bay: Sean Bergenheim
Sean Bergenheim scored the series-clinching goal for Tampa Bay in the first round against Pittsburgh, and it was his third goal of the series. Only Martin St. Louis had more (four). If the Lightning can get secondary production out of Bergenheim in this series, things could get very uncomfortable for the Caps.
In the end, we have the same feeling about this series as we did about the first round series against the Rangers. The Lightning have improved on defense over their first 50 games or so, but no one is going to confuse them with being impenetrable. And the Caps are not the Crosby-less, Malkin-less Penguins when it comes to scoring. We think this series is going to come down to how well the Caps can contain the Tampa Bay power play. The Caps were 19 of 20 (95.0 percent) in killing Ranger penalties in round one, but Washington moves up in weight class with the Lightning power play. The Lightning had a fat and happy time of it on the power play in the first round, going 8-for-27 (29.6 percent) against Pittsburgh. As much as the conversion rate was the 27 chances in seven games. If the Caps can hold down chances, their own chances improve significantly.
The Caps beat a team in the first round that finished rather well to end the season (11-7-1 in their last 19 games). Tampa didn’t finish as well and struggled against a team that couldn’t score. The Caps will not have that problem, even with Caps-killer Dwayne Roloson in goal. This series goes about as long as the last one.
Caps in five