"I thought, this isn't the way we play. It was reverting back to an older day." -- Coach Bruce Boudreau, on his team's play in the third period.
The Washington Capitals excelled in the latter stages of the season and in the first round of the playoffs by playing a controlled system, playing within themselves and taking advantage of their speed and strength on offense. For the first half of last night game, when they took a 2-1 lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning (and really could have been four or five to one), they played that way as well.
But a four and a half minute sequence at the end of the second period changed all that, and the Caps allowed play to be dictated to them the rest of the game. Tampa rallied for two late goals in that time and the Caps they fell back into more of the style they played when struggling over the winter, which can most politely be described as non-committal.
The end result was a 4-2 loss in Game One of these Eastern Conference Semifinals, and puts the Caps in the unenviable position of essentially needing to win Sunday in Game Two.
The first period started out a little clunky on both sides, as the Caps were coming off a five-day mini-vacation and the Bolts only 48 hours from their Game Seven clincher against Pittsburgh. Tampa got on the board first just 2:12 into play, with Sean Bergenheim knocking in a puck that squirted through Michal Neuvirth off a shot from Steve Downie.
Replays showed Bergenheim cross-checked Mike Green into the goal before the play to take the Caps d-man out of position, but no call came. Washington answered less than two minutes later, when Alexander Semin ripped a slap shot through Dwayne Roloson. The Caps swarmed after that and led in shots after one period 14-9.
The second period saw the Caps dominate the first 15 minutes, taking the lead less than two minutes in, as Jason Chimera won a puck battle on a faceoff to Roloson's right and then hit Eric Fehr with a great pass, who had drifted into the slot alone. Fehr snapped off a one-timer past the Tampa goalie and the Verizon Center faithful erupted.
The Caps enjoyed several other excellent scoring opportunities in the period, but could not convert again. On one sequence, Laich hit a post and Nicklas Backstrom got the bouncing puck behind Roloson, but Tampa defenseman Eric Brewer swept it out of the crease and out to safety. It could have been 3-1 on at least three different occasions.
But that didn't happen.
At 16:17, Neuvirth tried to play the puck up the board but Jeff Schultz couldn't handle the puck. Vinny Lecavalier collected the puck along the right wing boards and hit Steve Downie at the far post. Downie flipped the puck back toward Neuvirth and it deflected off Scott Hannan's stick and over Neuvy's right shoulder to tie the game.
"I thought we were in control of the game until the Downie goal," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. "That gave them life. But you can't play river hockey. I thought, this isn't the way we play. It was reverting back to an older day."
Less than two minutes later, Jason Chimera was called for roughing Pavel Kubina on a forecheck. At full speed, it looked like Chimera simply finished his check, but a closer look revealed that he got his elbow up on the Tampa defenseman. Kubina would not return.
On the ensuing power play, Karl Alzner tried to dig a puck out of the corner, but was beaten to it by Brewer, who got enough on it to get it to the post. Steven Stamkos gathered the puck there and on the second whack, got it behind an out of place Neuvirth, who expected the puck to got into the crease.
There were just 32 seconds remaining in the period, and it was obvious the wind had come out of the Caps sails.
The third period was a disaster. The Caps only managed five shots on goal, despite benefiting from two power plays in the frame. The best opportunity they had came when Alex Ovechkin made a beautiful behind the back pass to a wide open Nicklas Backstrom in front of the net, but he only managed to pound it into Roloson.
Backstrom, the Caps second leading scorer, has now gone 13 games without a goal. He had five shots on goal to lead the team, but his play was erratic.
Is he pressing? "Yeah, I think so," he said from the locker room after the game. "I had an open net there and I should have just put it in. That's what happens when you struggle."
Boudreau spoke about how Tampa impeded his squad in the third period. "They make it frustrating. They just hang back and you're trying to push and they're very good at it. That's why when they get a lead, and when they got a lead against Pittsburgh, they would hold on to it."
So the Caps are now faced with Game Two Sunday night. They should be the more rested team, the one with more jump in their legs and fire in their bellies. They'll have to play that way to regain the momentum in this series. Because right now, it's with the team that entered this series that didn't get a chance to rest their bones after playing seven games in the first round.
CAPS NOTES: The Lightning played much of the game without winger Simon Gagne, who appeared to black out after hitting his head and shoulder on the ice after a clean check by Scott Hannan. He left with assistance but on his skates, and Tampa coach Guy Boucher said he would be evaluated further by team doctors. Gagne has a history of concussions, missing almost an entire season as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers.
John Carlson appeared to suffer a leg injury of some sort, only taking bits of two shifts in the third period. Boudreau called him day-to-day and "hoped" to have him for Sunday.
Alex Ovechkin registered just two shots on goal and had seven blocked. The Caps fourth line of Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley and Matt Hendricks managed just two shots on goal, both from Gordon.
Jeff Schultz extended his streak of time on ice without opponent goal to 125:47, a Stanley Cup Playoffs record.