Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Lightning at Capitals, April 29th

And now, we come to the last game that mattered in the Caps’ 2010-2011 season, one that in retrospect might have been predicted and one that served to predict an unpleasant outcome…

April 29, 2011: Tampa Bay at Washington, Game 1, Eastern Conference Semifinal

Result: Lightning 4 – Capitals 2

Background: Sixteen teams make the playoffs. Fifteen lose their last game of the season. The Caps would be one of the fifteen, and the last bit of road they would walk to reach that end started here. The Caps were just off a refreshingly short five-game first round series win over the New York Rangers. Meanwhile, the Lightning were coming off a hard-fought seven-game opening round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, finishing the series off by the thinnest of margins, a 1-0 win over the Penguins in Pittsburgh. At the time, it probably didn’t matter much to Caps fans whether Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh was the opponent. The Caps were 3-0-1 in the season series against Pittsburgh, 4-1-1 against Tampa Bay. Folks might have been looking ahead to who the Eastern Conference Final opponent might be.

Why It Mattered: As noted above, 15 teams in the playoffs lose their last game of the season, but the seeds of that defeat might be planted long before that last-game loss. Such was the case here, reading the signs in hindsight. The Caps had that 4-1-1 record against the Lightning in the regular season, but the season series breaks down into two pieces. The first is comprised of the first two games in which the Caps demolished the Lightning, 6-3 and 6-0. It is worth noting that Dan Ellis and Mike Smith were the goaltenders of record in those games for the Lightning.

Enter Dwayne Roloson. The Lightning traded minor league defensemen Ty Wishart to the New York Islanders for Roloson in early January, perhaps with the facing the Capitals in the spring in mind. Certainly, neither of the other goaltenders the Lightning were offering up seemed capable of holding off the Caps. Roloson played in the last four games of the season series, posting a 2-1-1, 1.22, .959 record with two shutouts. In that respect, it was a different team the Caps were facing as this series started.

Going hand in glove with Roloson’s record was the nature of those last four games. Tampa Bay won two close-fought, low-scoring contests by shutout, 1-0 and 3-0. They lost one other game in a Gimmick, 2-1, grabbing another standings point. In the only game they lost in regulation among those last four, the Caps smacked the Lightning, 5-2. Apparently, the secret for the Lightning was to keep things very close to the vest.

But there was something else going on here, and that starts on the Caps’ side of the equation. The Caps had the best record in the league in the regular season when allowing the game’s first goal, 23-19-5 (a .489 winning percentage). The flip side of that, however, was that no team making the playoffs – East or West – gave up the game’s first goal more often than the 47 times the Caps did. That spelled trouble, because no team in the league scored the game’s first goal more often than did the Lightning – 51 times in 82 games. And there is perhaps no better predictor of an NHL game’s outcome than who scores first. In the past five seasons, only three teams posted a winning record when allowing the game’s first goal – the 2009-2010 Capitals, the 2008-2009 Boston Bruins, and the 2006-2007 Buffalo Sabres.

For the Lightning, then, the formula became simple – score first, back into their 1-3-1 defense, and let Roloson frustrate the Caps when they did get infrequent chances. In Game 1, that is pretty much what happened (although no plan is perfect). Sean Bergenheim, who scored the series-winning goal in Game 7 against Pittsburgh in the first round, opened the scoring in Game 1 barely two minutes into the contest. The Caps got it back less than two minutes later on a goal by Alexander Semin, but the key sequence in the period took place in the last six minutes. Steve Downie was sent off for elbowing at 14:32, and after the Lightning killed off that penalty, Brett Clark was whistled for delay of game when he shot the puck over the glass. Four minutes of power play time late in the period, the Caps managed three shots, and no goals. Having outshot the Lightning, 14-9, in the first period and getting two power play opportunities, the Caps had an opportunity to put their boots on Tampa’s necks early, and it passed them by.

Eric Fehr gave the Caps life and a lead in the second minute of the second period, but the Lightning stuck to its game plan, foiling the Caps repeatedly and allowing Roloson to stop the last eight shots he saw in the period. It paid off when Downie atoned for his first period sins with a game-tying goal 3:43 before the second intermission. The Caps might have been relieved to get to the second intermission tied, 2-2, but Steven Stamkos put an end to that thinking with a power play goal 32 seconds before the break to give the Lightning a 3-2 lead.

Having reduced the contest to a 20 minute game in which to hold a one-goal lead, Tampa just kept frustrating the Caps. After Marco Sturm recorded a shot at the 1:37 mark of the third period, the Caps would not record another shot on goal over the next 12:48. And with the game in the balance, the Caps would manage only three shots on goal in the last 18:23 of the third period. Tampa Bay added an empty net goal from Dominic Moore with 40 seconds left to provide the final 4-2 margin and give the Lightning the early series advantage.

The Takeaway: Score first (a goal by Bergenheim), frustrate the Caps (the Lightning had almost as many blocked shots – 23 – as they had shots on goal of their own – 24), let Roloson do the rest (stopping the last 13 shots he faced over the last 38:09 of the game). That was the formula. In all four games of this series the Lightning scored the first goal (all in the first period). They frustrated the Caps (the Caps had 50 first period shots on goal in the series, 24 third period shots on goal). They let Roloson do the rest (22 saves on 24 third period shots – a respectable .917 save percentage). It was a simple formula effectively deployed against a team with superior talent, but one that showed an inexplicable inability to adjust. It was all on display in Game 1 of this series, and it would be the template upon which Tampa Bay would build three other wins to sweep the Caps out of the playoffs. And that is why this was the last game that mattered in the 2010-2011 season for the Caps.

(Photo: AP/Alex Brandon)