Swept Away – Tampa Bay made quick work of the Capitals on Wednesday, closing out the Eastern Conference Semifinal Series between the two teams with a 5-3 victory on Wednesday in Tampa. The win competed a four-game sweep and concluded the series in just six days.
“They beat us four straight, so I think they were [better],” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “It wasn’t by a big margin, but they still won all four games so you have to say they were better.”
“The results speak,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “I thought there were games or portions of games where we outplayed them. But you’re not judged by your intentions at this time of the year, you’re judged by your results.”
No one knew it at the time, but the tone for the brief playoff series between the Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning was set back in Game 1. Many of the things that doomed the Capitals in each of the first three games doomed them again tonight in the elimination contest.
Sean Bergenheim scored the first goal of the series early in the first period of that game, and he scored it by going to the front of the net. Tampa Bay scored the first goal of each of the four games and held the lead for about 90 percent of the total game time of the four contests. Many of Tampa Bay’s 15 goals in the series were scored in that net crashing fashion, and several of the Bolts’ fortuitous bounces came that way as well.
“I believe they got the first goal in every game and I think now they’re 7-0 when scoring the first goal in the playoffs,” says Laich. “We talked about it. We pushed at the starts of games. We had chances. We tried, but they managed to get that goal. We’ve come from behind before; that’s not ideal. But we’re still comfortable coming from behind. But when you keep doing it repeatedly I think you’re playing with fire.”
While the Lightning got significant contributions from its star players – Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos – it also benefited from great work from lesser lights such as Bergenheim, Dominic Moore, Steve Downie, Eric Brewer, Teddy Purcell, Ryan Malone, Nate Thompson and others.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin led his team in scoring, but was also erratic and stubborn at times. He managed to get only about a third of the shots he took on net and took ill-advised penalties at ill-advised junctures in games, two of which turned into power play goals in Games 2 and 4. Both of those power play goals were also the first goal of the game. Ovechkin also tried to do too much by himself when the Caps were trailing late in games.
And Ovechkin was the best of the Caps’ stars in this series.
Washington’s role players didn’t contribute nearly as much as those of the Lightning, and the Caps weren’t able to muster the patience and discipline needed to play against the Lightning’s 1-3-1 system.
Finally, although he played valiantly, Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth wasn’t as good as he was in the first round against the Rangers and was outplayed by 41-year-old Bolts netminder Dwayne Roloson.
Washington led for about half a period in Game 1, and twice briefly in Game 3. But that was it. The Capitals led for just 26:05 of the 246:19 of hockey played in this series.
“We got behind in games,” says Boudreau. “When you get behind, it’s really hard to sit back when you need to push to get a goal. One of our goals was to get ahead in the game and then we could do what we normally do, which is shut down teams. The only time we did it was in Game 3, when we had a 3-2 lead and it was the first time we lost in regulation [when leading after two periods] all year.”
The Caps’ inability to consistently get and hold a lead meant they were always chasing the Bolts, a difficult team to catch even in a one-goal game.
“That’s one of the most important things in any hockey game,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “If you can jump on a team early and try and put them behind the eight-ball, that’s important for your team’s morale, and to set them back and try to take crowds out of it, a lot of little things. We just couldn’t get those goals early. It took us too long to get going and we fell short at the end of games.”
Each of the games was close, and with a break here or there – or one or two less mistakes here or there – the Caps could be even or better four games into the set. Instead, it’s summertime in Washington.
“We could have won this one and forced [the series] back to Washington,” says a dejected Mike Knuble. “It’s an emotional 24 hours because you have a chance to even the series and then all of a sudden you’re swept. It’s obviously very hard to take as a player.”
Tampa Bay was also better in the special teams aspect of the game, scoring power play goals in three of the four games and holding the Caps without one until late in the second period of Game 3.
“Special teams can really sway a game and sway a series,” says Laich. “We got away with taking a few too many penalties in the first round because the Rangers didn’t have as good a power play. But these guys had a good power play and they made us pay when we took penalties. That’s what happens.
“I thought our power play did some good things tonight to get a goal and last game get a goal, but ultimately when you’re playing a good team you have to stay disciplined and you have to stay out of the box.”
Veteran center Jason Arnott came to the Caps in a deadline day deal with the Devils because he thought Washington had a good chance to hoist the Stanley Cup this spring. Instead, he was telling reporters what went wrong.
“A lot of things,” says Arnott. “Our discipline, staying out of the penalty box. Just little gaps in 60 minutes of hockey. That’s playoffs. Coming into it, we talked about playing a solid 60 [minutes] and not leaving gaps in our game. And we did. They took advantage of those five, six minutes that we lapsed.”
Washington has now been swept three times in best-of-seven series in its playoff history, once in the second, third and fourth round. Boston erased the Caps in four games in the 1990 conference final and Detroit did so in the 1998 Stanley Cup final.
“It’s hard not to hang your head after being swept,” says Knuble. “He commended us on a good year. We battled; we had a lot of ups and downs this year. Telling us to walk out with our chins up and that’s very, very difficult to do. It’s a tough time in your life as a hockey player, that’s for sure.”
Recent History – The current core of Capitals players that first reached the playoffs together under Boudreau in the spring of 2007 has now played in six postseason series together, winning two. Both of those series wins came against the New York Rangers. The Blueshirts were seeded seventh in 2009 and eighth in 2011 when Washington eliminated them.
The Caps have played 37 postseason games in those four trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs, posting an overall record of 17-20 in the process.
Climbing The Charts – Although he still does not rank in the top 10 all-time among career postseason games played in a Washington Capitals sweater, Ovechkin is nearly the top of the ledger in some key offensive categories.
He now has 25 goals, tied for second with Dale Hunter and behind only Peter Bondra (30).
Ovechkin has 50 career points in Stanley Cup play to rank eighth on the team’s all-time playoff scoring list. He was 12th when the 2011 playoffs got underway.
Four In A Row – The Capitals and Lightning have met exactly 100 times during the regular season since the Bolts joined the NHL for the 1992-93 season. Only once during those 100 games has Washington lost as many as four straight games; it did so from Dec. 19, 2006 to March 1, 2007. The last two of those setbacks came via the skills competition.
Washington has now played Tampa Bay twice in the playoffs and is 2-8 in 10 postseason tilts against the Bolts, having lost four straight games in each series and eight straight contests overall.
No. 1 for No. 4 – Caps defenseman John Erskine scored the first Stanley Cup playoff goal of his NHL career, an unassisted tally late in the second period.
First One – Neuvirth lost his first playoff series since coming to North America to play junior hockey in 2006-07. He had won 15 straight playoff series at the OHL, AHL and NHL levels prior to this second-round set against the Lightning.
Road Closure – Wednesday night’s loss in Tampa marks the first time in more than a decade that the Capitals have been eliminated from the playoffs in a road game. The last time that occurred prior to this year was an April 23, 2001 loss at Pittsburgh on Martin Straka’s goal in overtime of Game 6.
Wednesday night’s loss in Tampa and that setback in Pittsburgh in 2001 mark the only two road playoff closures for the Capitals in the last 16 years.
By The Numbers – The Capitals were charged with 14 giveaways to Tampa Bay’s seven … Washington had 11 missed shots in the first frame alone and 20 on the night … Tampa Bay outshot the Caps 37-36 … Ovechkin led all Caps forwards with 25:05 in ice time while Carlson paced the team’s blueliners at 27:48 … Ovechkin teed up 18 shots on the night, but got just five on goal. Eight were blocked and five missed the mark … Alexander Semin had two shots on goal in just 15:25 of ice time. He missed the net four times … Back in the lineup after missing the two previous games as a healthy scratch, Caps forward Matt Hendricks laid four hits on just seven shifts totaling 4:24 … Eric Brewer led the Bolts’ backliners with 28:07. He also led the Lightning with seven blocked shots … Bergenheim led the Bolts with seven shots on net, and Nate Thompson was second with five. Both formerly toiled in the Islanders’ organization …
Martin St. Louis
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