"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.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are a good hockey club. They have a deep and talented offense, are extremely efficient on the power play, have a veteran and tough defensive corps, employ one of the most obnoxious agitators in the game, and now have a savvy goaltender that just happens to own the Washington Capitals in his history.

Add in the fact the Lightning just bounced the Caps' arch-rivals from the post-season, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest the Caps will have their work cut out for them in the second round.

But there seems to be less hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth about this series than the first round.  Maybe the fact that the Caps escaped indignity by surviving a first-round series has folks feeling, if not comfortable, a little less anxious anyway about the next round.

The stakes are obviously higher for the team. The stage is a little brighter. The schedule laid out is more difficult, with Games Two, Three and Four in a four night span. All these things should be making Caps fans even more nervous.  But it doesn't seem to be.

Could the Caps ownership of the Southeast Division the last few seasons be clouding everyone's vision? Could it stem from even further back in history, as the Southeast still didn't even exist when the Caps heroes of our youth did battle in places like New York, Long Island, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? Could it be the simple idea that they play their home games in Florida?

Maybe the fact the Caps haven't played Tampa Bay in the playoffs since 2003 is a factor?

Yes, I'm sure all those biases come into play.

Perhaps the Caps regular season record of 4-1-1 over Tampa Bay, outscoring them 19-10 in the process, has something else to do with it.

The Bolts new ownership and General Manager Steve Yzerman are putting together something very formidable in the Bay, and we should not demean that effort at all. With a little luck, maybe this series will finally instigate a natural rivalry within the Southeast Division. That would be good for the division, good for hockey, good for the teams and fans involved.

But as it stands now, even national television coverage of this series is being hidden, with Games One and Two banished to Friday and Sunday nights, so that games featuring Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit can be seen in the most visible slots. And Game Three in Tampa has been set for 6:30 pm, when most D.C. residents are still stuck on the Beltway, 395, or one of the Parkways.

Maybe Tampa comes out tonight, still on a high from their opening round victory, and puts a scare into a rested, but perhaps rusty Caps team and that will get the nerves going again. Maybe Dwayne Roloson pitches a shutout, as he has done several times in the past against the Caps, and the butterflies that were there for in round one come back.

Caps fans should have a healthy dose of respect for the Lightning and their organization. They are certainly capable of playing well enough to advance to the Conference Finals, a place the Caps haven't reached since 1998.  The Bolts led the division much of the season until the Caps went streaking in March.  They had ten double-digit goal scorers and were sixth in the NHL in power play efficiency in the regular season and third in the playoffs so far.

It's a team full of veterans, from Vinny Lecavalier to Martin St. Louis to Ryan Malone to Steve Downie to Pavel Kubina to the ancient one, Roloson, in goal.  Oh, and that Stamkos kid is pretty good too.

In several publications, I predicted the Caps would dispatch the Rangers in five games and they made me look good for saying so. I will now go on the record once again, predicting this time Washington will take care of business in six games.

Enjoy the games Caps fans. 

As they did for the first round, NBCWashington.com assembled some of the finest hockey minds in D.C. (and us) and asked them to make some projections about the Washington Capitals second round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As you'd expect, most predict the Caps will win the series, but there are certainly some interesting thoughts as to the keys to the series and matchups that bear watching.

Please click through to see all of the prognosticators' answers.  And thanks to Jim Iovino for inviting us to participate once again.

Schedule Set for Second Round

Posted by Dave Nichols | Thursday, April 28, 2011 | , , , , | 0 comments »

The Washington Capitals will face Southeast Division rival Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, starting Friday night at 7:00 pm from Verizon Center.  There is a noticeable quirk in the schedule: back-to-back games in Tampa next Tuesday and Wednesday, due to the University of South Florida graduation ceremonies to be held at the St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday.

Here's the full schedule:

Game One: Friday, April 29, 7:00 pm at Verizon Center (Versus, TSN)
Game Two: Sunday, May 1, 7:00 pm at Verizon Center (Versus, CBC)
Game Three: Tuesday, May 3, time TBD at St. Pete Times Forum (Comcast SportsNet, Versus, TSN)
Game Four: Wednesday, May 4, 7:00 pm at St. Pete Times Forum (Comcast SportsNet, TSN)
*Game Five: Saturday, May 7, 12:30 pm at Verizon Center (NBC, TSN)
*Game Six: Monday, May 9, time TBD at St. Pete Times Forum (Comcast SportsNet, Versus, TSN)
*Game Seven: Wednesday, May 11, time TBD at Verizon Center (Comcast SportsNet, Versus, TSN)

*If necessary.


Plenty has been written -- at least in the D.C. market -- about Washington Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth after his fairly spectacular performance in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals win over the New York Rangers.  But the young goaltender himself isn't paying attention to any of that right now. 

"It's pretty nice, you know, but I'm just focusing on my game and trying to play my best for this team," Neuvirth said after Tuesday morning's spirited practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.  "I'm not trying to look back.  [I'm] just looking forward and just want to be focused and play my best for this team right now."

Neuvirth leads all NHL goalies that have played the majority of minutes for their team in goals against average and save percentage in the first round, allowing just eight goals in five games, and is one of a handful of goalies to play every minute for his team in the cage in the first round.

For example, the Philadelphia Flyers are starting their third different goalie in Game Seven tonight against the Buffalo Sabres.

Neuvirth is now 15-0 in playoff series in North America, including his stints with OHL Plymouth and AHL Hershey, backing the Bears to consecutive Calder Cups in 2008-09 and 2009-10.  And while those minor leagues don't compare talent-wise to the NHL, it's still excelling at the highest competition level for those leagues.

Neuvirth, for one, believes that experience is helping him focus now that he's competing in the playoffs with the big club. 

"Oh yeah, for sure.  Every playoffs is still playoffs so there is a lot of pressure," Neuvirth remarked. "Those weren't easy [games] when we were in Hershey. It was a tough circumstance.  It gave me a lot of experience. [Round two is] not going to be easy but I think I can handle it and I can't wait for next game."

Since the Caps were able to close things out against the Rangers in five games, and with all the other Eastern Conference matchups going past that, Washington has a few days to rest, practice, and get ready for the next opponent.  Neuvirth isn't concerning himself with the games still going on, though he is anxious to get back in the net and get going again.

"We had a tough practice today and had a fun practice yesterday, but obviously we're pretty excited about our next round and it's gonna be another great opportunity for our team.  We're pretty excited to play and I think a lot of the guys can't wait until the games start [again]."

With the extra time, does the clear No. 1 goalie dwell on who the next opponent might be?  Does he care?

"Not thinking about it right now," Neuvy said.  "Just gonna wait to see what happens and we'll find out tonight or tomorrow night who we're gonna face and obviously we're gonna get ready.  It's not gonna be easy, all the teams are very good and it's not going to be easy."


Defenseman Mike Green, who was felled by a Matt Gilroy slap shot in the first period of Game Five against the Rangers, participated fully in this morning's practice and afterward reported no ill effects. "I'm fine, other than a bruise,” said Green.

When asked if he was worried about another concussion, after he missed 26 games at the end of the season, he replied, "No, not at all. The first one was a lot different than this one. Right away I knew with the first one; this one I got up right away. Other than it stinging a little bit, I was fine.”

“They make good helmets, and this time it hit me in the helmet. I’m okay, so that’s all that matters,” Green said. “I think that time, it happened so quick that it’s pretty tender and sore when it did happen. But like I said, thank god for those helmets and I’m very fortunate.”
He then requested that the reporters change the subject to talk about hockey.  "I feel great," Green said. "I had a good skate today. We worked hard. I feel good."
All three injured Capitals skated before the team came out for practice in full pads, but only Knuble stayed out for the regular practice, and even then did not participate fully in line rushes.  Wideman left practice after before most of his teammates were out of the dressing room, suffering from some light-headedness.
“His legs are feeling fine,” coach Bruce Boudreau said of his Wideman, recovering from a hematoma to his leg and compartment syndrome. “He was a little dizzy today so we [said] get off -- or lightheaded, not dizzy -- and so just to make sure he’s fine.”
Wideman looked to be skating pretty free and easy, but did not do any full out sprints or hard stops during the time he was skating.
Knuble said he's feeling good, but does not have a timetable for return.  “I’ve been skating every day, just trying to keep my legs up and stuff,” Knuble said. “I’m encouraged by the way things are going and you just do your best to stay with the group and keep up with the pace of play so when you do come back it’s not a huge adjustment."
The veteran forward reitereated that he would indeed play in the second round, though that has not been confirmed -- or refuted -- by the team.
Boudreau said winger Alexander Semin was feeling a little under the weather and told him to stay home from practice today, considering the team has several more practice days available this week. 
“He’s fine. He had a little bit of the flu so we just said ‘listen, stay at home,’” Boudreau said. “We still got Wednesday, Thursday, minimum -- practices probably Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. We don’t know when we’re starting yet.”
Semin had three goals and an assist in the first round against New York.

Growing One for the Cause

Posted by Dave Nichols | Monday, April 25, 2011 | , , | 0 comments »

I've finally registered for Beard-a-thon, sponsored by the the Capitals and NHL.com.

You can find my profile here if you'd like to support the cause, the Fort Dupont Hockey Club.  Here's a description of the mission: 
Washington Capitals Charities will be donating all proceeds from the 2011 Beard-A-Thon to Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena. Fort Dupont is the only public indoor ice arena located in Washington, D.C., and the only skating facility in the area that provides free or subsidized skating programs to children. Its Kids On Ice programs provide free figure skating, hockey and speed skating lessons to vulnerable and economically disadvantaged youth who might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn these sports. Lessons learned on the ice, such as teamwork, respect, hard work and discipline, translate to lessons learned in the classroom and beyond. 
It's a great cause and the Caps Care program does such good work in lots of different areas.  Please consider making a pledge, no matter the amount.

Thanks for your support.

“It was a great game by us. A great performance. We played a good 60 minutes. We didn’t allow them too many chances. Neuvy played great tonight. It was a great effort by everybody.” -- Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom.

Ovi celebrates the second goal of the game for the Caps. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network).

In the end, this was simply the culmination of a dominant team over a lesser opponent.  But for sixty minutes on Saturday afternoon for the home fans, it was a triumph of spirit.

The Washington Capitals did everything they wanted to do in Game Five, from the initial puck drop until the final horn, dominating the New York Rangers, winning Game Five 3-1 and capturing their best of seven Eastern Conference Semi-final matchup four games to one.

The Capitals now can afford to relax for a few days as their second round opponent is sorted out.  And their fans can now rejoice in putting away a first round opponent in five games, escaping the demons of gut-wrenching previous playoff series debacles of years past.

As it turned out, the Rangers really couldn't play with the Capitals.  They were swamped from the very beginning of the game, and the Caps skated circles around the Rags, who played the part of bully in Game Four until the Caps stormed back and re-took play from the lesser talented team.

Sure, the Rangers were successful for a while in Games Three and Four in dumbing down the game and forcing the Caps into playing more of a style that suited them: a plodding, ugly, messy affair.

But from the puck drop Saturday, the Caps dictated play.  They were faster, crisper, hit harder, passed better and generally controlled play on the Rangers, who were overwhelmed by the speed and physicality of the Caps.

Rangers forward Brian Boyle, who instigated plenty of contact in Game Four, talked about the shift in dynamics as the series left New York and came back to D.C.  "I thought our first shift was pretty good, but they came back with some good ones. Their first power play, they were swarming. They kept the momentum, the building was rocking. It was hard to get [the momentum] back. Towards the second, we started playing better and the third we did as well but we just couldn’t create enough offense.”

Defenseman Marc Staal was even less effusive about his team's play.  “From the start of this one, I noticed we were sitting back a little bit and they were making plays around us and gaining momentum that way. I can’t really tell you right now what it [was].”

Washington dominated play early, keeping the puck in the New York zone, and when veteran defenseman Bryan McCabe went off for tripping at 5:42, you got a sense the Caps weren't going to mess around.  Nor did they.  Alex Ovechin gathered a rebound and came cruising in from the point and held the puck until Mike Green could pinch in from the opposite point.  Ovi gave him a perfect pass at the faceoff circle. 

Green got a shot off and Henrik Lundqvist kicked it right back to Green, who stuffed it in to give the Caps the first period goal they sought the entire series.  After the goal, there was a pretty nasty scrum, and five players were sent to the box, four for roughing (including Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin), and New York took a bench minor for "abuse of officials". 

Rangers coach John Tortorella, long known as a hothead behind the bench, finally put his team behind the eight-ball.  The Caps didn't score on the ensuing power play, but they had finally gotten to the Rangers wizard by standing up physically to the abuse the lesser talented team had tried to dole out.  In a 30-second scrum, Laich and Semin not only stood up for themselves, but for their entire team.  It was long overdue, and it was particularly effective.

Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green celebrate Caps first goal, as Brooks Laich pays the price. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network).
In the second, Ovechkin broke in and beat Lundqvist (24 saves) on a true goal-scorer's goal, beating defenseman Marc Staal, going hard on the forehand, then cutting across the crease to flick a backhander over the sprawled Lundqvist for the backbreaker.

New York didn't just give up, but anyone watching knew they were broken.  When Semin banged home a perfect pass from Marcus Johansson with 3:37 remaining, the roof just about popped off the joint.

Michal Neuvirth was, again, outstanding.  He was only truly challenged on a handful of occasions, but was up to the task.  Neuvirth made 26 saves for his fourth win of the postseason. His 1.38 goals-against average in the first round leads the NHL, as does his .946 save percentage. The young Czech netminder has yet to lose a playoff series in North America.

Yes, the volume level was just as impressive as the Capitals play Saturday.  After the challenge that the denizens of Madison Square Garden laid down in Game Four, the red rockers proved worthy adversaries, with chants of "We Are Louder" to go along with the customary "Let's Go Caps!" chants, inspired and instigated by resident cheer-leaders Horn Guy and Goat.

Hey MSG, can you hear us? (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)
The performance by the fans in the stands matched the effort by the players on the ice.  And for one night, the fruits of owner Ted Leonsis' plan could seen in plain sight: A team and its fans acting off one another in pure synergy.

The Caps have a long way to go for their ultimate goal.  Their captain said as much in his post-game remarks from the locker room.  "It’s first time we win the series in five games," Ovechkin said. "It’s pretty cool, we have time to rest. Right now I feel pretty good, but it’s not over yet, it’s just one step.”

Just one step. 
The Caps don't yet know who their second round opponent will be.  Regardless of who it might be, the Capitals are much more prepared than in years past to take that next step.
But for now, Caps fans, rejoice.  Enjoy this first round victory, do not take it for granted.  And don't look past it yet either.  There will be more games to be played in the quest for hockey's Holy Grail, but don't let one moment of this glorious victory go unsavored.
3. Boyd Gordon. 12-of-15 from the dot.  Fourth line really shut down Rangers skill players all night long.
2. Alex Ovechkin. Goal. Assist.  Doing his job.
1. Michal Neuvrith.  Stellar.  Calm, cool, collected.  I don't think he gave up a rebound all night.
CAPS NOTES:  Mike Green took a slap shot of fhis helmet only moments after scoring his goal in the first period and did not return.
Washington killed off 19 of the Rangers’ 20 power plays in the series (95.0%).

Michal Neuvrith makes one of his 26 saves. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)

The traditional post-series handshake at center ice. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network).

Capitals salute their raucous crowd after 3-1 win over Rangers (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)