Caps and Bolts Should Not Lack for Entertainment
By Scott Lowe
Over the past few years – even when the Bolts weren’t a contender – the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning have played many entertaining hockey games. It is a rivalry that has been percolating over time and should reach a boiling point as the two teams square off in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Game 1 is tonight at Verizon Center with a 7 p.m. faceoff.
Looking back at some of the more entertaining duels between Washington and Tampa, there was the late-season game in 2008 in which an injured Vincent Lacavalier was helped from the ice with the Caps chasing down their first playoff berth in five years. There was a pair of 7-4 track meets, a Washington victory in 2008-09 and a win for the Bolts in ’09-10. There was last year’s brewing fight between Alex Ovechkin and Steve Downie in which Matt Bradley looked like a WWE combatant, sprinting a good 100 feet to intercede on behalf of his club’s star.
Then there was this year. Washington notched five or more goals against Tampa three times, including in 6-0 and 6-3 victories, to capture the season series 4-1-1. But, once the Lightning brought in veteran (being polite) netminder Dwayne Roloson, the Caps were only 2-1-1 against the Bolts, including back-to-back whitewashings at the hands of Rolie the Goalie. Those outings were followed by a 5-2 Washington win in which the Caps, specifically Matt Hendricks, got into Roloson’s head and clearly affected his play. Throw a pair of Alex Semin hat tricks into this season’s equation and it’s hard to know what to expect when these teams clash in the postseason.
Washington has dominated Tampa since returning to its status as a perennial postseason participant. Since the 2007-08 season the Caps are 19-4-1 against the Lightning, having scored four or more goals in 12 of those contests and five or more goals nine times.
But since January 4 of this year, once the Bolts had time to acclimate themselves to new coach Guy Boucher’s trapping style and after Washington’s changeover to a more defensive-oriented system, only twice has one of the teams scored three or more goals. The last four contests have featured two shutout wins for Tampa and a 2-1 Caps’ shootout victory, so it stands to reason that the two teams are trending toward a low-scoring, intense and relatively lengthy series.
Throw a couple of hot goaltenders into the mix, and despite the plethora of skill in both lineups, it looks like this series will feature classic white-knuckle playoff hockey. Roloson posted a .949 save percentage and 1.77 GAA in the Bolts’ seven-game victory against Pittsburgh, while Michal Neuvirth was .946 and 1.38 against the Rangers.
Each team in this series boasts more offensive firepower than the teams they faced in the opening round, however. It is also interesting to note that key players from each side such as Ryan Malone, Downie, Semin and Mike Green each missed multiple games of this season’s series, but all are back and at least relatively healthy this time around.
“It was six tough games against them (this season),” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It should be interesting when you play against a team that’s in your division, especially right now. The rivalry got pretty good against them there at the end, I think because both teams were vying for first place. I think the last four games we had against them were pretty serious, but this takes it another step.”
Looking at the matchup on paper there is no shortage of skill. Go right down the list: Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, Nicklas Backstrom and Martin St. Louis, Arnott and Lacavalier, Semin and Simon Gagne, Brooks Laich or Mike Knuble and Steve Downie, Marco Sturm and Dominic Moore, Marcus Johansson or Jason Chimera or Eric Fehr and Sean Bergenheim. The speed and skill on the ice should make for an exciting and fast-paced series – even if it is close-checking.
During the season the Caps’ skill guys got the better of Tampa’s, with Ovechkin and Backstrom each totaling two goals and eight assists while Semin tallied seven goals and two helpers in just four contests. Bergenheim and Teddy Purcell were the only players to net more than a single goal for the Bolts, and St. Louis led Tampa in overall scoring with four points.
The equality in skill and speed points toward the performance of the third and fourth lines – as well as overall play of the defensive units – as the key to this series. The play of the Caps’ third line – which with Johansson, Chimera and Fehr is a combination of speed, skill and grit – was outstanding in Washington’s series win against New York. Chimera netted two goals, including an overtime game-winner, in the series, Johansson notched two goals and two assists and was plus-three and Fehr went plus-three in a pair of contests while filling in for the injured Knuble.
Washington’s fourth line of Hendricks, Boyd Gordon and Bradley, one of the league’s top grinding units, provided energy and matched the physical Rangers hit for hit. Advantage Washington.
The Caps’ blueline contingent has gone from a much-maligned unit to one of the deepest in the league. Karl Alzner and John Carlson, a pair of 21-year-old rookie phenoms, have become the team’s shutdown pair, regularly skating 25-plus minutes. Jeff Schultz was not on the ice for an even-strength goal vs. New York (plus-five) and was reunited with all-star Mike Green, who seemed to exorcise his playoff demons by recording five points in round one. The veteran pairing of Scott Hannan and John Erskine provides grit, physical play and veteran savvy, having posted a combined plus-four rating against New York. And don’t forget that veterans Tom Poti and Dennis Wideman have been preparing daily for an opportunity to return from their injuries.
While former first-round draft pick Victor Hedman appears to be coming into his own and should develop into an all-star defenseman for Tampa, he was a minus-four in the opening round against the Penguins. Veteran blueliners Eric Brewer (even), Mattias Ohlund (plus-three) and Pavel Kubina (plus-one) are solid, with Brewer’s goal and four assists vs. Pittsburgh after a rough start to the series being one of the most eye-opening statistical lines of the playoffs to date. Rounding out the Bolts’ defensive corps is Mike Lundin (even in seven games), Brett Clark (plus-two in seven games) and Marc-Andre Bergeron (even in three games). Again, the advantage here has to go to the Caps both in terms of talent and overall depth.
Certainly Roloson’s laid-back demeanor, ridiculous 6-0 all-time record in playoff elimination games and age (41) give him an experience advantage over Caps’ rookie netminder Neuvirth. But Washington did show that it can get under Roloson’s skin and make him lose focus at times this year. On the flip side, not many people realize that Neuvirth has never lost a postseason series in North America (juniors, AHL, NHL) and has a 55-17 career playoff record since coming to the continent. There’s no question Roloson can steal games when he’s on, and you can figure that will happen once or twice this time around. All in all, however, based on Neuvirth’s showing in the quarterfinals, this matchup appears to be even.
The Caps had success getting pucks to the net and scoring dirty goals vs. a shot-blocking, pack-it-in New York club and now realize what it takes to win this time of year. This will be an entertaining series to say the least, and will be great for the NHL as it should finally help to establish a heated Southeast Division rivalry. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll get one of those barn-burning, up-and-down 6-5 games that these two teams seem to throw at us every now and then.
Given all the factors and talent on the ice in this series, there’s no reason to expect Washington to shut down the Lightning every time out. Roloson will be good enough, combined with Boucher’s trapping style and Tampa’s offensive skill, to help the Bolts win a couple of games, but Washington should prevail in six.