Caps On The Brink Of Elimination…How?!
As has often been the case since I started writing on this blog, I haven’t had too much to talk about, until the Caps start to go wrong…which they have. We headed into the playoffs in good form, with only a couple of injuries, and seemingly more ready than ever for postseason. I, though, was worried about the opposition. As it turned out, there was little need. Whilst the series was close all the way through, the Caps progressed relatively quickly, compared to other series winners in the league this year, winning the series 4-1. The defense held strong, the offense was good – certainly better than last year – and most importantly, there were no signs of nerves or tension in the Caps play.
Just and a week and a half after the Capitals closed out the Rangers, though, Washington is down 3-0 in the Eastern Conference semi-final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. How did we get here? After the first round win, I was feeling quietly confident over our chances of going far in the postseason. The Caps had faced one of the top goalies in the league, flanked by a good young defense, and an offense which had twice put more than six goals past them in the regular season. Next up the Lightning. After almost a week’s rest and facing a team they had had success against in recent times, including this year, I was looking forward to a challenging task, but one I thought Washington should overcome.
Game 1, and it wasn’t looking good early on with Sean Bergenheim, part of the in-form Tampa third line, putting the Bolts ahead early, but Alex Semin, who has had a very good playoffs so far, tied it up soon after. The Caps looked sluggish early, but in the second period took a lead through Eric Fehr and were holding out defensively. Late on in the second though, Downie levelled the score before Steven Stamkos made it 3-2 on the power play. Whilst the Caps penalty kill has been excellent this year, it has struggled with the Lightning PP. The Bolts simply have too many weapons. It is evident how difficult Washington has been finding it to contain Stamkos, Lecavalier and St. Louis when they are all on the ice, and when a man down, and with Ryan Malone causing havoc in front of the net, it became even harder. It soon became a similar display as in the first round last season from the Capitals; driving hard but not breaking the barrier. This time it was not a youngster but ‘experienced’ Dwayne Roloson keeping them at bay. An empty-netter from Dominic Moore made it 4-2 Tampa Bay and a 1-0 series lead.
In Game 2, the Lightning went up on the power play again, before Brooks Laich tied it up as Washington still struggled but eventually broke through. Heading into the third, though, I couldn’t help but think only the visitors looked like scoring, and that they did as again the Capitals’ defensemen couldn’t handle the big guns. With Washington in need of desperation, only Alex Ovechkin really seemed to show real urgency to score. And, typical of the man, he managed to bully the puck into the net in the last minute of regulation, sparking an emphatic celebration. It was to no avail as it turned out, as Vinnie Lecavalier poked home from close range for a 2-0 series lead for Tampa Bay.
Game 3, and again the Lightning took the lead after poor defensive play. Again in this series, Washington turned things around with a second period that was certainly the best period of the series from the Caps. And Alex Ovechkin was a true leader, first setting up Mike Knuble before later notching a go-ahead goal on a 5-on-3 power play with a beautiful sniper’s goal. Throughout the game, Ovi stood out, early in the game coming out with classic big hits and creating a number of chances for himself and teammates. But the Capitals fell apart in the third period. First Stamkos with a laser wrist-shot, then 24 seconds later Ryan Malone with a extremely scrappy goal with his skate, put the Bolts ahead again. Despite a late push, Washington was vanquished; and now is in a 3-0 hole in the series.
Mike Green summed it up perhaps the best, saying the team has been “alright”, but adding that alright is “not good enough” in the playoffs. There have been times when the Capitals have looked explosively good; but at other times they have looked fragile and nervous.
Looking forward, obviously there will be desperation in Game 4, and I think perhaps Washington may hang on a little longer. After some dodgy goals in Game 3, Michal Neuvirth may find himself on the bench, with Semyon Varlamov healthy and ready to step in. Bruce Boudreau might well mix up his lines, possibly even turning to a couple of call-ups from Hershey to spark a reaction from the team. It has been a disappointing series, but it’s not over yet, as the whole organisation has been and will be saying, but it’s a big mountain to climb; and if they do fall there could be major change in Washington over the summer.