PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference quarterfinal; Game 1.
The Lightning hope to get their first playoff appearance in seven years off to a successful start when they open the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Capitals.
Following six straight years as one of the league’s worst teams, little was expected of the Lightning this season. Tampa Bay, however, got off to a blazing start and overcame a midseason slump with a strong finish that carried it to the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1996 and first-ever division title.
The postseason presents a difficult challenge for the Lightning, who will try to translate their game from the regular season with a roster made up mostly of players with little or no playoff experience.
While Tampa Bay has 12 players on its roster that have never played in the playoffs, Washington has a combined 687 games of postseason experience on its roster.
The Lightning do have captain Dave Andreychuk, who has appeared in 128 postseason games during a 21-year career.
“We have to try not to change our game, even though it is the playoffs and the intensity is there and your level of play goes up, you still have to go out and do your job on the ice,” Andreychuk said. “You can’t run around with your head cut off just because it’s the playoffs.”
Washington gets most of its offense from veterans Jaromir Jagr, Petr Bondra, Robert Lang and Sergei Gonchar. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, relies on youngsters Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle.
Lecavalier, who hasn’t played in a playoff game since his last year of junior hockey in 1998, had the best season of his career, with 34 goals and 78 points.
“It’s not like the playoffs are a different league, it’s the same league but the players are going to be hitting a little bit more and playing a little bit more dirty,” Lecavalier said. “But it’s fun. This is what you play for.”
Goaltending is one area in which the Lightning can match any team in the league. Nikolai Khabibulin heads into the postseason as the league’s hottest netminder, losing only once in his last 17 games (12-1-4).
Tampa Bay finished one point ahead of Washington in the Southeast, gaining the home ice advantage in this series. That extra home game could prove very valuable because the Lightning, who have lost 11 straight in Washington, won 22 home games during the regular season and just 14 on the road.
Both coaches are making their first appearance in the playoffs. John Tortorella took over as Lightning coach midway through the 2001-02 season and Washington’s Bruce Cassidy just completed his first season as an NHL head coach.
Cassidy is aware that the Lightning’s best players are young and inexperienced.
“Half of their go-to guys, they’ve never played in a playoff game,” Cassidy said, “so it’ll be interesting to see how they respond if they don’t play well in their own building.”
The Capitals, who failed to make the playoffs last season despite the addition of Jagr, haven’t won a postseason series since 1998 when they reached the Stanley Cup finals.
Owner Ted Leonsis, who opened his checkbook to add Jagr and Lang, had made it clear that a minimum goal this season is to advance beyond the first round.
“It’s very important,” Bondra said, “the direction we’re going, where our ownership is going, what kind of players we brought in here, how good we are— no question—this is the time we have to step and show them we want to win.”
Jagr, who led the team with 36 goals and 77 points in a mostly injury-free season, says he has no intention of just settling for reaching the conference semifinals.
“My goal’s not to win the first round of the playoffs,” Jagr said. “My goal is to go all the way. I don’t care if I’m playing the hottest team in the NHL or not. If you want to win, you have to beat anybody.”
Injuries played a large role in Washington missing the playoffs last season, but goaltender Olaf Kolzig’s performance was also much more consistent this year. He needs to rediscover his 1997-98 playoff form that saw him carry the Caps to their only Stanley Cup finals appearance.
Game 2 is Saturday afternoon at the St. Pete Times Forum.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Capitals - 92 points; 6th seed seed. Lightning - 93 points; 3rd seed.
TEAM LEADERS: Capitals - Jagr, 36 goals and 77 points; Gonchar, 49 assists; Jason Doig, 108 PIM. Lightning - Lecavalier, 34 goals; Prospal and Richards, 57 assists; Prospal, 79 points; Andre Roy, 119 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Capitals - Power play: 17.2 percent (57 for 331), 14th in NHL. Penalty killing: 81.3 percent (312 for 384), 28th. Lightning - Power play: 17.9 percent (70 for 391), 10th. Penalty killing: 82.6 percent (261 for 316), 20th.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Capitals, 3-2. The Capitals won both home games in the series, and lost two of three at Tampa Bay. Jagr led Washington with four goals and seven points while St. Louis and Lecavalier had four points apiece for the Lightning.