In the NHL the rule is that the warmer it gets, the harder the competition becomes.
It is not just a matter of increased skill from the opponent. There is no doubt that the Tampa Bay Lightning have a lot more talent than the New York Rangers, but with increased intensity and stress, teams resort to all sorts of desperate measures.
To beat the Lightning and move on to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in the Bruce Boudreau era, the Caps are going to have to learn to cope.
Take a look at the other playoff series that have just been completed. In the Eastern Conference, every team except the Caps that moved on had to come from behind in the series. The Flyers had to figure out All-World goaltender Ryan Miller and their own shortcomings in net. They played to their strengths, kept the high-energy forecheck on the Sabres and eventually Buffalo wilted because their strength – defensive traps in front of Miller – could not cope. Boston lost the first to game, at home no less, to Montreal because the Canadiens took a lead in each game and went into a 1-4 zone and started using their bodies as rubber scotch guards. The Bruins knew they had the talent to get to Habs’ netminder Carey Price, played physical but in control and took out their arch-nemesis in a dramatic seven games.
For Tampa Bay, it was a growing period. Uber-talent Steven Stamkos is facing his first playoffs and so are a lot of the young players on the Lightning squad. They are also buoyed by veterans like Martin St. Louis, Vinny LeCavalier and Dwayne Roloson. Once they reconciled themselves to playoff hockey, the Penguins could do little to shove them out of the seat of victory.
The Lightning come to face the Caps a little older and a little wiser for the experience. Coach Guy Boucher has a little more seasoning behind a playoff bench and Tampa comes to Washington with a head of steam and some recent success against the Capitals to up their confidence.
Washington took the season series against Tampa 4-1-1 (2-3-1 from the Lightning side). For a better part of the season, the Lightning led the Southeast Division and it was not until the Caps got hot in March (and Stamkos got cold) that they put the upstart behind them for another division title.
The season series between the rivals was a good indicator of how each team evolved. Early in the season, the Lightning were teaching themselves that they were winners. Stamkos was on fire and the defense/goaltending was atrocious. The Caps came in and took two games from Tampa in November, scoring six goals a game against career NHL backup goaltenders in Mike Smith and Dan Ellis.
January rolled around and the Lightning had figured themselves out a bit and were on the rise. They traded for veteran goalie Roloson and the wily netminder shut the Caps out at Verizon Center the first night that he donned a Lightning uniform (it was such a rapid movement that Roloson was actually still wearing his Islanders mask). Eight days later, Roloson shut the Caps out again, this time in Tampa. The Caps were on the downslide, figuring out how to succeed in Boudreau’s new defensive scheme and it was one of the Bad Times that Washington faced all season.
Then, in a similar fashion that the Lightning have pulled together in the postseason, the Caps started to click. They ended Roloson’s ridiculous shutout streak with a 5-2 win in Tampa on Feb. 4 and then won the final match via shootout on March 7. It was the last game of the season series and, fittingly, the closest run of the bunch. It will be a precursor for what is to come in this seven game Eastern Conference semifinals tilt.
A friend of mine (who is distinctly NOT a Caps fan), when asked for a prediction to the series said “the Lightning are not as good as the Rangers and Ovie cannot be held down again, Caps in five.” It is a sentiment shared by a lot of Caps fans. I am sorry, friend, that thought shows a distinct lack of understanding of what it takes to win in the playoffs as well as for the talent that the Lightning possess.
The top two lines for Tampa are about as good as it gets. Stamkos, LeCavalier, St. Louis, Simon Gagne and Ryan Malone are about as deep and talented a group of forwards left in the NHL playoffs. The Lightning are a little light on the blue line but their top four defensemen in Eric Brewer, Victor Hedman, Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina are adequate and can play well in coach Guy Boucher’s system that emphasizes keep the attack coming from the outside.
It will be a tougher series than Caps fans expect. The Caps themselves will not underestimate the Lightning though. There is a feeling with this group of Washington players that they have figured out what it takes to win in the playoffs. Whether or not they can actually pull it off comes down to health and execution.
Let’s take a look at the key matchups heading into Game 1 tonight at Verizon Center.
Caps Defense v. Lightning Top Lines
All reports point to Mike Green being healthy after the scary puck to the helmet he took last Saturday in Game 5 against the Rangers. That is good because the Caps are going to need all the depth they can get to be able to roll out matchups against Stamkos and St. Louis. The key will be to keep Stamkos from spotting up on the left dot while stopping the wily St. Louis from keeping his nose around the net. Look for Karl Alzner and John Carlson to shadow Stamkos throughout the series.
Dwayne Roloson v. Caps Top Scorers
Roloson is not a top-tier goaltender, but he does have the ability to get into opposing forwards heads’. If he can get hot and frustrate Alexander Semin, the streaky Russian winger could be taken out as a factor in the series. Alex Ovechkin will get his goals and he may blow up against the Lightning defense in one game. It will be up to Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble (if he can come back from a hand injury) to get in the slot and bang on Roloson’s doorstep.
Caps Goaltender Michal Neuvirth v. Lightning Explosive Offense
Neuvirth did not fair well against Tampa in the regular season. He played two games and was pulled after the first period in one of them. He had a 3.00 goals against in 80 minutes with a .917 save percentage. On the other hand, Semyon Varlamov shutout the Lightning once this year, played four games with 242 minutes, a 1.49 goals against and spectacular .949 save percentage. Look for Boudreau to go to Varly in a game or so if Neuvirth’s struggle against Tampa continue.
Prediction: The Caps will be pushed but have found the maturity to win in crunch time. Caps in seven.