There was something missing at Verizon Center on Friday night. It just did not feel right, neither with the fans in the stands or the Caps on the ice. All evening felt like one of those awkward dates where you end up holding hands because that is what you are supposed to do, not because that is what you want to do.
And the Caps lost. The Lightning played solid and steady for most of the game, did not panic when Washington scored two goals and dominated for a 25 minute stretch through the second period and used a little luck to beat the Caps 4-2 to take a one game to none lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“You can’t play river hockey and I am looking at this saying this isn’t the way we play. It was reverting back to an older day,” said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau.
It was like Verizon Center was asleep. The fans were loud when they were supposed to be loud, cheered when prompted, joined the chants when it was appropriate. About 15 minutes before Game 1 puck drop I found myself standing in the press box saying “this is a 7 o’clock start, right?” The stands were only about 40% full. It eventually filled out and the pre-game was very loud but once the lights came back on, the crowd zoned out. They played with their thunder-sticks and cowbells because it was what they are supposed to do.
I mean, who are these people?
Talking to a concessioner between periods, he guessed that the season ticket holders are selling their seats. In the playoffs that is not a bad idea. Sell two games and you make up for what you paid for the entire season. But, it was what we would call in New England an “omelet” crowd. Gritty men, men who fish and get dirty and are sun weathered do not eat omelets. They eat their eggs hard boiled or scrambled, their bacon hard and chewy. They yell when they have something to say.
Omelet crowds yell when the jumbotron tells them that the fury should be unleashed.
And the Caps played to their crowd. Tampa Bay took an early lead on a goal that did not seem like a goal where there was a seemingly harmless scrum in front of Washington netminder Michal Neuvirth, the puck slipped through his legs and Lightning wing Sean Burgenheim came in and slipped it into the net.
The crowd had absolutely no reaction. No collective sigh, no swearing, no loud cursing.
Yes, after the goal was announced, they yelled “who cares” because, yup, that is what they are supposed to do.
You know who cares?
You fucking care.
You know why?
Because your team is now losing the freaking game. If they lose, do you still not care?
I wonder sometimes.
After letting in that one goal, the Caps got it back quickly when Alexander Semin took a feed after Marco Sturm created a turnover on the forecheck. Semin took a whack from the right of the high slot and the puck slid through Lightning netminder Dwayne Roloson’s pads. From just about that point until the 10:00 mark in the second period, the Caps were clearly the best team on the ice. Tampa Bay, coming off a hard-wrung Game 7 on Wednesday, was lucky to escape the first period with the score tied at one and lucky to get to a point in the second period where they could turn the momentum back in their favor down 2-1 instead of 4-1.
Eric Fehr scored the second goal off a good feed from Jason Chimera chasing down a faceoff in the Tampa zone, sliding the puck from the trapezoid to the slot where Fehr could bury it over Roloson’s left shoulder.
It was pretty much downhill from there.
“We didn’t really stick to the game plan in the second period, got a little bit sloppy and committed turnovers and they capitalized on them,” Fehr said.
Caps defenseman Jeff Schultz agreed with the assessment that the Caps played out of their normal comfort zone that has been in development since mid-December.
“We ought to get a little bit more aggressive and go down the boards and make it harder for them getting it out and getting rebounds because the shots were there,” Schultz said. “I think we got the lead and figured we would get more and more instead of trying to protect it.”
Everybody who was cogently paying attention to the game knew that the Caps were starting to screw themselves when an old friend, the through-the-legs drop pass made an appearance on the rush. It is a play that is emblematic of a team that thinks it can play the how it wants, like they are on a pond or a river, as Boudreau said. An arrogant team. A team that thinks it can show up and win by virtue of its presence on the ice against an inferior opponent that is dog-tired from coming back three games to win a seven game series against the Penguins.
“Get back to the way we play and just grind it out and grind it out and get pucks to the net and hopefully we will get a goal,” Boudreau said. “When you start playing chance for chance, they are a pretty skilled group over there as well and when you are behind it is something that you can’t afford to do, I think.”
The Lightning scored a couple of goals that could have been prevented by the defense and goaltender Michal Neuvirth. On a broken cycle, Steve Downie threw the puck behind him into the crease as he crossed the slot. The puck went off Caps defender Scott Hannan and into the net, tying the score. The go-ahead and game winner came on the power play when Steve Stamkos was able to wedge the puck through Neuvirth off a good feed from defenseman Eric Brewer in the corner.
“There is always the luck element in there. Sometimes you plan stuff and they do other stuff that works,” Tampa coach Boucher said. “I think all around our players put a lot of work into the details.”
Boucher said a lot of the right things in the post game press conference. He was confident but humble, he praised his team’s effort while giving the kudos to the opponent. He was even a little fatalistic, saying he never expected that the Lightning would win either of the first two games at Verizon Center.
“It was surprising that we came and won one of the two. I will be honest, we weren’t expecting that,” Boucher said.
Boucher’s team is young. Sprinkled with veterans, but still green, especially in the postseason. But, going through a seven game grinder and coming out clean on the other side, Boucher thinks they have learned something and they probably have – stay steady, stay consistent, reload physically and emotionally, play within the game plan.
“As for our team, obviously the first round has given us maybe some tools to be calmer under pressure,” Boucher said. “But, having said that, the team we are playing is quite a hockey machine and at ice level I can tell you, looking out there and staring at them.”
The focus for Saturday’s practice heading into Game 2 for the Caps is to remember who they are, what kind of team was it that beat the Rangers so handily in five games. It was a steady team, it was a hungry team. Where was that team when Tampa Bay took the lead and Boucher unrolled the trap defense? The Caps skated right into it, the same way they skated into it last year against Montreal. It … was boring.
“They make it frustrating,” Boudreau said. “They hang back and you are trying to push. They are very good at it. The get a lead like they got a lead against Pittsburgh, they just hold on to it.”
Yet, Washington has said time and again that they do not really focus on the opponent and what they are doing. They play situations and scenarios against themselves and how to beat them. Boudreau knows how his team can beat a trap defense. It is not easy but when the players buy in to it, traps can be handled and Washington has done it before.
So, the directive is clear – get back to the basics. Because if the Caps do not, it will look an awful lot like the same old story.