April 29 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center
Game 1, Eastern Conference Semifinal Series Time: 7:00 pm TV: Versus Radio: 1500AM, XM and the Capitals Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. on www.washingtoncaps.com
Tampa Bay Lightning (46-25-11 in regular season)
Washington Capitals (48-23-11 in regular season)
Washington heads into the Eastern Conference Semifinal round of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs when it hosts the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 on Friday night.
The Capitals will take the ice after having each of the last five days off to rest and practice. The Caps earned the down time by being the only Eastern Conference club to end its first-round series in fewer than seven games. Washington made quick work of the New York Rangers, sending the Blueshirts to their summer vacation after a five-game first-round set.
Tampa Bay took out Pittsburgh in its first-round series.
“They’ve got more game-breakers for sure than the Rangers have,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau of the Lightning. “I think their special teams were an awful lot better than Pittsburgh’s were. That was probably the difference.
“In our series, the Rangers’ power play wasn’t that successful and we had a little bit of success on our power play. I think it’s going to come down to special teams battles.”
When the Lightning visits on Friday, the Caps will still be without right wing Mike Knuble and defenseman Dennis Wideman. Knuble has been sidelined for nearly two weeks; he last played on April 17 in Game 3 of the New York series. Wideman has been out for a month, since suffering a lower body injury on March 29 against Carolina.
Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth was terrific against the Rangers (4-1, 1.38 GAA and .946 save pct.), and he has also had past success against the Lightning. Lifetime, Neuvirth is 2-0 with a 3.38 GAA and a .905 save pct. in four starts against Tampa Bay.
Neuvirth earned his first NHL victory on Feb. 14, 2009 at Tampa Bay in the same game in which Green set an NHL record for most consecutive games with a goal by a defenseman (eight).
Behind Neuvirth, the Caps also have sophomore goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who has also had a history of previous success against Tampa Bay. In eight career starts against the Bolts, Varlamov is 5-2-1 with two shutouts, a 1.87 GAA and a .934 save pct.
While the Caps have had the benefit of a few days of much needed and well-deserved rest, the Lightning comes in on the heels of a taut 1-0 win over the Pens in its series clinching game on Wednesday. Washington’s formula for its own series clincher was to come out fast and furious in the first last Saturday against the Rangers, and a similar strategy could pay dividends on Friday if the Lightning show any signs of fatigue.
After beating the Pens on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, the Lightning flew directly to the District, arriving in the wee hours of Thursday morning.
“Of course we want to come out hard,” says Caps center Marcus Johansson. “That’s what we did the last game against New York. We had a really good first period and a really good whole game. I think we got pressure on them and they had to hold back a little bit. I think that’s what we want to do again. We want to control the game and play hard and take it to them right from the start.”
Much of Washington’s success in recent months and in the Rangers’ series stems from the speed and size of the Capitals’ group of forwards getting pucks deep and playing a grinding, eroding style in the offensive zone. Tampa Bay’s blueline corps is more experienced overall than was New York’s but the strategy remains the same.
“It’s very important that we play with speed,” says Johansson. “It’s going to be hard to beat them in the neutral zone, and we have to get the puck deep and find a way to get it back. They’re good along the boards and they’re big and strong. We’re going to have to work real hard to win.”
The Lightning’s transition game is dangerous, and the Caps will need to play smart and limit mistakes in order to avoid fueling Tampa Bay’s attack.
“Getting on the forecheck is key,” says Caps center Boyd Gordon, “but they do a good job of closing things down and forcing bad plays. We’ve got to keep pucks out of dangerous areas and not turn them over at the blueline.”
“They sit back,” says Caps defenseman Scott Hanna. “We know how they play in the neutral zone. They don’t come at you in that way; they look for turnovers. I think if we can manage the puck well, get pucks in deep and do those little things that we talked about all year long against any team, those are the types of things you’ve got to do, manage the puck well and play in the other team’s end.”
The Caps went 4-1-1 against the Lightning during the regular season, but that doesn’t mean much now.
“They’ve got a pretty good team,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “They are a hard-working team, they have skilled guys and offensive guys. We have to be ready for it. It’s a new series and a new game.”
Tampa Bay underwent a renaissance this season under the guidance of first-year GM Steve Yzerman and first-year head coach Guy Boucher. Yzerman brought in blueliners Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina and center Dominic Moore via free agency last summer and he also added veteran winger and Cap killer Simon Gagne in a nifty trade with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Those moves helped the Lightning get off to a solid start in the 2010-11 season. The Bolts were neck and neck with Washington for the top spot in the Southeast throughout most of the campaign. Realizing that his team was in need of some fortification in the nets, Yzerman dealt for the seemingly ageless Dwayne Roloson on New Year’s Day.
An athletic, ultra-competitive late bloomer, Roloson became the oldest NHL netminder ever to play 60 or more games in a season with Edmonton in 2008-09. This season, the 41-year-old fell just six games shy of breaking his own mark.
Roloson posted an impressive .914 save pct. during the 2010-11 regular season, and he was 18-12-4 after joining the Lightning. Roloson’s 2010-11 save pct. is the second best ever by a goaltender over the age of 40 in NHL history. Only Dominik Hasek (.925 with Ottawa at age 41 in 2005-06) fared better in his forties.
With a 1-0 shutout over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Bolts’ first-round series, Roloson helped rally his team from a 3-1 series deficit to win the team’s first playoff series win since it took down the Calgary Flames in the 2004 Stanley Cup final to claim the lone Cup championship of its two-decade history.
During the regular season, the Lightning ranked seventh in goals scored per game (2.94) and 22nd in goals against (2.85). Among all 16 of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoff entrants, only Detroit (2.89) allowed more goals per game during the regular season.
In vanquishing the Penguins in their seven-game Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series set, the Lightning scored an average of 3.14 goals per game, tied for sixth in the league. The Bolts were the league’s second stingiest team in the first round, allowing just two goals per game.
Tampa Bay has been tremendous in special teams thus far in the postseason. The Lightning’s power play went 8-for-27 (29.4%) and the Bolts killed 34 of their 35 (97.1%) shorthanded situations in the first round. The Lightning would like to have some better discipline in this round; their 35 times shorthanded is tied with Buffalo for most in the playoffs to date.
The Lightning has a lot of offensive firepower (10 forwards with 10 or more goals), a seasoned defense and a proven playoff goaltender (Roloson is 22-15 with a 2.41 GAA and a .922 save pct. in 40 career NHL playoff games). The Caps and Lightning finished two wins and four standings points apart in the 2010-11 regular season, but to hear Boucher tell it, his team is the decided underdog in this series.
“We’re not kidding ourselves right here,” says the Bolts’ bench boss. “We think we’re playing the best team in our conference. It’s the team that’s No. 1. It’s the team that is supposed to win everything in our conference. It’s the fifth year of their plan. They have to win; we know that. They have to win or else it’s a failure. They’re going to put everything into this one.
“We’re aware that injury-wise they’re probably going to get all their guys back. In the last three months if you look at all their games, everything’s working for them. Everything‘s working for them. Even when they’re losing a game with a minute left, they seem to find a way to get it [done] all the time. They win in overtime. They find ways.
“Right now, they seem impossible to beat, so we’re not kidding ourselves. This is going to be extremely difficult. With all the pressure they’ve got and all the expectations they’ve got this year, they’re going to have all the emotion into those games.”