April 29, 2011
That the Washington Capitals are rested and ready for a second-round series feels odd; usually under Coach Bruce Boudreau, their hearts should still be pounding after an intense seven-game series. And, usually, those hearts would be pounding on a golf course or back in Moscow by now.
Ah, but these are the new Caps, not the old Caps, and the new Caps dispatched the New York Rangers in five games. The signs are all positive: Their stars are scoring, their rookie goalie looked sharp and their veteran additions have given this group a championship gloss.
So the Capitals found their postseason personality … and so have the Lightning. The first four games were schizophrenic affairs, thanks in part to the Pittsburgh Penguins' defense. But that 8-2 pounding in Game 5 inspired confidence that carried over to the rest of their three-game series rally. They're a deeper team than you'd expect considering their star power; and Dwayne Roloson(notes), the tireless geezer, is the great equalizer.
Will the Capitals ride the Lightning, or will Tampa be the next team in the grand playoff tradition of sending Washington fans back to their Redskins season preview guides with a sullen comportment?
With 3 goals and 3 assists in the opening round, Alex Ovechkin(notes) now has 46 points in 33 career playoff games. He didn't have to carry the team to victory offensively: Alex Semin scored 3 goals, including one in overtime. Jason Chimera(notes) had 2 goals, one of them in OT. Jason Arnott(notes) had 1 goal and 2 assists; and, making the Caps all the more dangerous, rookie center Marcus Johansson(notes) tallied 2 goals and 2 assists.
(Semin, by the way, tormented the Lightning in the regular season to the tune of seven goals. Yikes.)
The Capitals should get veteran Mike Knuble(notes) back during this series, and his net presence against Roloson will be key. Hopefully the Capitals get Nicklas Backstrom(notes) back, too, instead of the guy who had one assist in five games vs. the Rangers.
Comparing the offensive weaponry of the Lightning to that of the Rangers is like comparing the U.S. Marine Corps to a high-school safety patrol. Marty St. Louis, nominated for the Hart Trophy tallied 4 goals and 4 assists before going scoreless in Games 6 and 7 vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins. Simon Gagne(notes) (7 points), Vinny Lecavalier (6 points) and Steven Stamkos(notes) (4 points, after a rough start) are all scary, especially on the power play.
But the Bolts' offense goes deeper than that: Witness the tenacious Steve Downie(notes), with 7 point, 16 PIMs and a 1-game suspension in the first round. Teddy Percell had 5 points. Dominic Moore(notes) (4 points) set up Sean Bergenheim(notes) (3 goals) with a nasty backhand pass for Game 7's only goal.
Do not adjust your computer screens: That actually is Mike Green(notes) with five points in five playoff games and a plus-3. That includes a goal and an assist on the power play, where his lack of impact one year ago contributed to the Capitals' ouster at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.
The Capitals' ice-time leaders in Round 1 were Scott Hannan(notes) (25:11) and John Carlson(notes) (25:09). Hannan was over 4 minutes a game shorthanded. The Caps also received strong performances from Karl Alzner(notes) in the opening round. John Erskine(notes) is there for muscle. Dennis Wideman(notes) is still mending from that hematoma he suffered before the playoffs.
While Roloson is GM Steve Yzerman's most high-profile acquisition this season, his trade for Eric Brewer(notes) near the deadline is paying off big time. Brewer's leading the team with 25:43 TOI and skating a whopping 4:35 per game shorthanded. He's been a physical presence (ask Max Talbot(notes)) too. Brewer and Mattias Ohlund(notes) are a solid, veteran duo.
Victor Hedman(notes) (22:14) has elevated his game in the postseason, while the Bolts have gotten two power-play goals and some workmanlike performances from Pavel Kubina(notes). Marc-Andre Bergeron(notes) is a power-play specialist.
Defense is a team effort for the Bolts, but their blue line looked good against Pittsburgh.
Rookie Michal Neuvirth(notes) played all five games of the first round, and was impressive (1.38 GAA). He gave up two goals in three games on home ice, and earned a split at MSG, by keeping it simple: No adventures trying to handle the puck with a quality defense in front of him, and lots of freezing the puck for faceoffs. If he falters, Semyon Varlamov(notes) and potentially Braden Holtby(notes) are in the wings.
Those three goalies combined can't come close to the experience for Roloson, the 41-year-old keeper who might be the key to the Lightning's upset bid. He posted a 1.77 GAA in the opening round, facing a postseason-high 256 shots. He kept the Bolts in all seven games, and posted a shutout in Game 7.
Fishin' in the mornin' and Zamboni's at night. It's a Hockey Paradise:
Best. Beer. Commercial. Ever.
Bruce Boudreau changed the Capitals' system this season with the playoffs in mind: An emphasis on team defense over flashy plays and gaudy stats. That the Caps won a playoff series in under seven games for the first time on his watch has to be a measure of validation, but the Lightning will provide a tougher offensive test. There is a very good chance that, at some point in the series, Boudreau will demand his team get their "ass outta your head."
Besides having the mutant ability to unhinge his eye sockets while coaching, Guy Boucher also instituted his own system this season to great results. The 1-3-1 the Lightning play proved effective in the first round of the playoffs. The test for Boucher will be finding favorable matchups for his big guns on the road.
The Lightning had one of the most lethal power plays in the NHL during the regular season, and that's carried over to the postseason. They were 8-for-27 against Pittsburgh, the best PK in the regular season. On the kill, they were a stellar 34-for-35.
The Capitals were 3-for-16 with the man advantage, which isn't great but also isn't the disaster that was last postseason's unit. On the kill, the Capitals were 19-for-20, but that had a lot to do with the Rangers' rather inept attack.
The Lightning could have the advantage in special teams, which speaks to the Capitals need to be disciplined in this series.
For any lover of cheap-ass beer, this Capitals tribute to Natty Boh is a catalyst for instant thirst.
Slamming nine beers in a row is a Bohvechtrick.
Are there reasons for concern here for the Capitals? Sure. Roloson is the kind of goalie that inspires night terrors. The Bolts are a tough team to crack when they're playing their system well. The Lightning have tormented the Capitals before; please recall their rally from down 2-0 in the series to win a 2003 triple-overtime series-clinching game in D.C. … on a too many men on the ice penalty, no less.
But the Capitals showed in the first round this postseason that they may not be the team that lets an opposing goalie get in their heads, or one that shoots itself in the foot with underperforming stars.
The pick here is the Capitals in six, because Roloson's going to be able to snatch a game or two. But overall, Washington is going to be able to contain the Bolts' big guns and continue to get confident playoff performances from its core and its veteran additions.