It is a dangerous thing in playoff hockey, to be an expected winner and to be winning narrowly and to have golden opportunities to vanquish a weary underdog opponent but fail to do so. An underdog in hockey often gains game-altering vitality from a death row pardon. The Capitals were ahead of the Lightning 2-1 in the second period last night, the scoreboard failing to illustrate how well the Capitals were executing their coach’s gameplan, and how thoroughly in control of the game they were. Just one more goal by the hosts and you sensed that a fatigued Lightning team might just fold and hope for two nights’ sound sleep in a quality Washington hotel before trying to even things Sunday night.
“I thought they should have buried us,” Steve Downie said in the postgame, alluding to the effectiveness the Caps enjoyed over the game’s first 30 minutes.
What looked to be a Brooks Laich score in tight was overturned on review as a kicked in goal. Looked like the right call. Twice in the second stanza loose pucks danced around Dwayne Roloson’s crease with primary Capitals’ attackers perfectly positioned but swatting futilely at them. Neither a snakebit Nicklas Backstrom nor Jason Arnott could extend the Capitals’ lead, and that’s when the trouble started. That’s when game one’s momentum switched.
Capitals’ penalties suddenly piled up in the period, too, and that’s a disaster scenario against this Tampa team.
The Capitals got away from the disciplined and patient approach that had tired Tampa on its heels. They reverted to their old individualistic skill ways, and defeat followed.
River hockey it was over the evening’s final 30 minutes for the Caps, with Green to Semin drop passes creating turnovers instead of scoring chances, Alexander Ovechkin attempting to stickhandle through all five Tampa defenders, cohesion and puck support vanishing.
“I think we play too cute,” the captain acknowledged.
In a remarkable irony the team that looked the most fatigued, the most ineffective arriving at and successfully battling for loose pucks, was the team that enjoyed fully five days off this week. It was the Tampa Bay Lightning, arriving in Washington a little before sunrise Thursday morning from Pittsburgh, who on Friday night won races to pucks and emerged from scrums along the boards in possession of the biscuit. Shocking.
The Capitals really let one get away in game one. Against the Rangers the Capitals had rough patches but they never reverted to the failed stratagems of postseasons past. Maybe the extended layoff fostered less rust and more distrust — in the revamped system. Suddenly Sunday night has the look of must-win. And they may undertake it without the services of John Carlson, who appeared to suffer a lower back injury. The evening took a physical toll on the Lightning as well: Simon Gagne went off groggy from a hard but clean Scott Hannan check in the corner, and later shutdown defenseman Pavel Kubina left a lot worse for wear.
After a rough opening 5 minutes for the Caps during which Tampa swarmed Washingtons’ defenders and earned a deserved 1-0 lead little more than 2 minutes in on a Sean Bergenheim tally, Tampa very nearly made it 2-0 before Lightning tormentor Alex Semin snuck a 5-hole softie by Roloson to even the score. The Caps then took control, patiently cycle-circling in breakout formations designed to build speed and angle advantage against the Tampa trap. It worked, wonderfully — forwards from the first three lines attacked the Tampa zone with speed and support. Both the sum and quality of shots the Caps directed at Roloson were impressive over the game’s first 30 minutes.Fourteen shots piled up on Roloson in the game’s first 20 minutes, and the observer began imagining a lot of fatigue quickly massing in this series for the 41-year-old netminder.
Then, perhaps frustrated at not extending their lead, the Caps went back to their old playoff defeated ways of the past, premised on misguided individualism, a conspicuous absence of cohesion, sloppy passing, bad line changes, and unnecessary and damaging penalties. They tallied 9 shots in the second period and just 5 in the third. Once Tampa secured a lead, they stifled, outworked and out-hustled, and the impatient and individualistic Caps played right into their strongsuit.
The individualism and lack of cohesion extended to all five Capitals’ power plays on the evening, which were a mess. Personally, I’ve seen enough of Ovechkin on the power play point. He will never possess the ingrained or innate instincts of an authentic offensive defenseman back there, and all too often there is, understandably, indecision in his orchestration of the extra man attack up high. He belongs on the half wall, where his one-timers from well-timed cross-ice passes are lethal, or where he can launch a wicked wrister with a quick burst into a narrow opening. In fact, when Ovi’s countryman Semin is flanked on the opposite half wall, Mike Green is deft at distributing the puck among them while drawing checking forwards up high on him to open shooting lanes.
That would be a welcomed reversion.