Not as dramatic of a finish as closing out the Rangers series in 2009, but it was a lot easier on the hearts of Capitals fans. While Sergei Fedorov’s game winning goal with 5 minutes left in Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals versus the NY Rangers is one of the most memorable moments in recent Washington history, I’ll take being able to relax at home watching other series game 7′s, while waiting for the Caps next series to start, any day.
The last time the Capitals won a series in fewer than seven games was when they defeated the Buffalo Sabres in 6 games in 1998 which propelled the Caps to their only Stanley Cup finals appearance. The Capitals will have to make it through the Tampa Bay Lightning before that is possible again. Though the Caps went 4-1-1 versus the Bolts during the regular season, hockey fans know that the playoffs are an entirely different playing field. Apparently, the Caps six day break in between the Quarterfinals and Semifinals made them forget that during Game 1 versus the Lightning.
Friday night, the Caps stepped onto the ice looking like they were ready to play against their divisional opponent in a routine regular season match-up. Meanwhile, coming fresh off a 7 game series with Pittsburgh, the Bolts were well aware what was at stake entering Verizon Center. It didn’t take long for luck to come Tampa’s way due to their hard work in front of the Caps’ net. While everyone thought the puck was under the Caps’ netminder Michal Neuvirth, the referee and Bolt’s winger, Sean Bergenheim, saw the puck was free just behind Neuvy and he poked it into the net, giving Tampa an early 1 goal lead. Shortly afterwards, a lapse in judgment by a Lightning defenseman resulted in the Bolt’s nemesis, Alexander Semin, tying the game for the Caps.
After a nice wrist shot from the slot by Eric Fehr which gave the Caps a 2-1 lead, the Caps seemed in control of the game until the end of the 2nd period. Steve Downie’s attempted pass in front of the crease tied the game for the Bolts when it deflected off of Caps’ defenseman, Scott Hannan. Just over three minutes later, the Caps found themselves in a hole again after a questionable penalty call on Jason Chimera. In an unusually poor performance on the penalty kill, the Caps were caught standing still while leaving the blooming Lightning superstar, Steve Stamkos, all alone on the edge of the crease. Just 32 seconds later, the Bolts entered the locker room with a 3-2 lead.
The Lightning defended their lead well, as they limited Washington to just 5 shots in the third period while only taking 4 shots themselves. Not a very offensive game. The Caps powerplay looked uncoordinated as they lost valuable time with multiple blatant offside calls. They were unproductive, not taking enough shots and when they did so, they didn’t put enough traffic in front of Lightning’s goalie, Dwayne Roloson. With 40 seconds left of the game, the Bolts insured the win with an empty net goal that could have been prevented had the Caps’ captain, Alex Ovechkin, made a bit more of an effort to out race Tampa’s Dominic Moore to the puck.
Did the Caps make light of Game 1 versus the TB Lightning? Even though I was at the game rocking the red as hard as ever, I must admit that Friday night’s game did not feel like a playoff game… not until the final minutes of the game when it was obvious the Caps were in danger of going down in the series 0-1. It was undeniable neither the fans, nor the players were into this playoff game as much as everyone was in any of the games in the last playoff series versus the NY Rangers. It was quite a different atmosphere in the same building where the Caps fans declared “We are Loud-er” for New York to hear, just less than a week earlier.
You can see by the Caps playoff tickets resale prices, the demand to see the Lightning isn’t nearly as high as it was to see the Rangers. Had the Penguins progressed instead of the Bolts last round, the ticket prices and intensity in the arena on and off the ice would be completely different. I have a feeling the level of intensity and sense of urgency will be quite heightened on Sunday, as D.C. realizes they are down 0-1 in the Semi-finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs versus the very capable Tampa Bay Lightning. As I mentioned in a blog early this year (http://bit.ly/irxSPR), the Lightning would have been one of the teams I would’ve placed a Stanley Cup futures bet on. This series will be a lot more interesting than most people think.
To succeed, the Caps must play the Bolts the way they played the NY Rangers in the first series and improve their powerplay performance. If they work as hard as they did in Game 5 of round 1 in every playoff game, the Caps would be unbeatable. Hopefully the Caps will remember from now on, that these games versus the Lightning ARE playoff games.