I spent all those words on the Rangers and the Caps went and dispatched them in five measly games. I will try and be more economical this time.
Had Montreal defeated Boston last night in OT, we’d be here talking about the ghosts of ’09-’10, the 1-for-34 powerplay, and a scarily improved P.K. Subban. Had Pittsburgh been able to find a goal last night, we’d be talking about, well, so many things. We’d be pondering if Sidney Crosby would risk his career health to come back and get a measure of vengeance against the boys in Red, against whom his health problems first began. We’d be talking about the absence of Geno Malkin, and how the spotlight would only be magnified on Alex Ovechkin, clearly the best player in the series if it had happened. We’d be talking about rain at Heinz Field, Eric Fehr, HBO, f-bombs, Disco Dan, a possible replay of the Caps’ ’08-’09 playoff campaign, Matt Freaking Cooke, and all the rest.
But we’re not. We’re talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning. We’re talking Dwayne Roloson throwing up two goose-eggs on a vulnerable Caps team in January. We’re talking the indefatigable Marty St. Louis. We’re talking Steve Downie, picking up where Sean Avery left off (which, depending on who you believe, was kind of gross).
It’s a good (semi) old-fashioned Southeast Division showdown! Welcome back to the playoffs everyone, I hope you rested up!
Five keys to the series, after the jump…
Some hockey folks will gloss over this series in favor of meatier matchups, but the great thing Caps and Bolts fans alike will appreciate is that this pairing feature’s the league’s two hottest goaltenders. Dwayne Roloson (the artist formerly known as Rick DiPietro’s backup), leads NHL playoff goalies in save percentage. Michael Neuvirth, who has shown icewater in his veins and looks like a kitty cat, leads the league in goals against average and boyishness. Roloson is 41, Neuvirth just turned 23. Don’t you love hockey? It’s also worth noting that even in extremely successful Stanley Cup runs, it’s inevitable a second goaltender gets a game sooner or later. Will Semyon Varlamov be tapped in this series? The mental and physical fatigue on Neuvirth has not shown if it’s there, but, this being his first NHL playoffs, the Caps cannot expect miracles from Neuvy forever. Roloson’s impact on Tampa cannot be understated. Before he arrived in the Sunshine State, the Caps beat the Bolts 6-3 and 6-0. After acquiring the veteran netminder, the Caps lost to Tampa 1-0 and 3-0, before rebounding and winning 5-2 and 2-1 (in a shootout) to take the season series 4-2. Neuvirth only played one of those games fully (the 6-3 shutout in which he stopped 38 of 41 shots), so the two have yet to meet head-to-head. Whoever slips first could tilt the ice significantly in their own direction, as goals may be hard to come by.
Of the 16 teams who got to partake in the playoffs, Tampa is dead last, by a long shot, in terms of putting the puck on net. The Bolts averaged just 25.2 shots per game against the Penguins. In fact, that makes the fact that they finished out the series so impressive. On the converse, the Lightning allowed the second-most shots against per game in the playoffs, at 36.7. These ratios bode well for Washington, or any team really. In hockey, the cliches tend to be true. If you put the puck on net, good things will happen. The Caps, if you’re curious, were 8th in shots per game (29.6) and 5th in shots allowed (29.6).
There’s no question that Tampa got a bit of good fortune thrown their way, drawing the Penguins without Crosby or Malkin. However, the team worked extremely hard at both ends of the powerplay, and that ultimately is what won them game 7 last night. In addition to seeing the two hottest goaltenders, Caps and Lightning fans will be treated to two of the three most successful penalty-killing units in the playoffs (the other being Montreal…ce’st la vie). It’s no surprise though, that good penalty killing follows good goaltending, and vice versa. If this is the unstoppable force versus the immovable object, then a red flag for the Capitals has to be the powerplay situation. I’m not a conspiracy theorist when it comes to the NHL, but the officiating in the first series did few favors (the washed-out goal in game 3 notwithstanding) for Washington. If the Capitals are going to give the Lightning a chance to play a man up, they may very well get burned as badly as Pittsburgh did. Tampa was 29.6% on the powerplay in that series, scoring 8 PPGs on the Pens. By comparison, the Capitals were just 18.8%, only hitting the Rangers for 3 powerplay goals.
“Seasoned Lightning” sounds like a micro-brew
How GMs build their team is endlessly fascinating to me. Tampa is modeled similar to Washington, focusing on a mix of skill and toughness, but tends to skew even more toward veterans than the team George McPhee has built. The key difference is that their true star, Steven Stamkos, is just 20 years old and still coming of age in the NHL. A second ho-hum, 50-goal season for Stamkos makes you wonder when the team truly becomes “his.” That question would be easy to answer, if Tampa didn’t have such a strong cast of characters in the age 30 and up category. Vinny LeCavalier, Pavel Kubina, and St. Louis all were coming into their primes when the Bolts hoisted the cup in 2004, and have continued to be the fabric of the roster since then. This season and in recent years, adding vets like Simon Gagne, Eric Brewer, and Mattias Ohlund, Tampa has significant experience to round out the group around Stamkos. The Caps main producers, as we know, are smack in the middle of their primes, with a pack of young pups behind them and some crafty role players in front. Watch out for Stamkos. Even though he got a piece of the Rocket Richard trophy last year, his coming-out party may not have even happened yet.
TCB on the flash
It’s hard not to get excited about the playoffs, obviously. The atmosphere is unlike any other sport’s postseason. However, the familiarity and the lack of a long playoff history (compared to a Pittsburgh or a Philadelphia) gives the Capitals the opportunity to just go out and get the job done. No unnecessary drama, just good execution, winning on home ice against division opponents, as the Capitals have done so brilliantly in the Boudreau Era. I’m not at all saying the Capitals should be looking past the Lightning, who have a Stanley Cup in their trophy case. I’m saying the familiarity affords the opportunity to just go to work like they do six times a year, every year against Tampa. Limit the fanfare, the dramatics, the hype. Just go play hockey and assert dominance over your division. Tampa is a talented team, but one the Caps have proven they can beat.
So I was right about Caps in 5 over New York, but way off on Backstrom leading the way. I’m gonna stick to my guns, Caps in 5 in this series as well, with Ovechkin continuing to pace the team as the points leader (bo-ring!).