WASHINGTON, D.C. - For the first time under Bruce Boudreau's tenure as head coach, the Washington Capitals played in a playoff series that did not last the full seven games. Last Saturday, the Caps finished off the New York Rangers in only five games. A six-day layoff is practically unheard of in the NHL, so while the Caps had a chance to rest and prepare for the next series, they also had a chance to get rusty.
That rusty start manifested itself in the first five minutes of Friday's 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but it did not haunt the Caps for too long as they seized momentum and grabbed a 2-1 lead in the second period. In reality, it was the missed opportunities later in the game that allowed the Lightning to complete the comeback.
"You can use excuses all day, but I don't think everyone was going," Boyd Gordon said. "We have to have a better effort on Sunday."
In Game 5 of the Rangers series, the Caps used a torrid start in the first 10 minutes to put them away. Yet, Washington, for lack of a better word, came out flat Friday. The Lightning controlled the tempo early, despite the fact that they played three games in five days, and took advantage of the Caps' lackadaisical play when Sean Bergenheim converted a Caps turnover into a goal just 2:12 into the contest. When it looked like Tampa Bay would take control of the game, Alexander Semin squeaked a soft goal past Dwayne Roloson to tie the game at 1-1 less than two minutes later.
"I think the first couple of minutes, we were a little not in the game," Alex Ovechkin said. "After they scored the first goal, we woke up and played our style of game."
The Caps rattled Roloson, who has a tendency to be streaky, and turned a 7-0 shot disadvantage into a 14-9 advantage by the end of the first period. But despite the immense pressure they placed on Roloson, the Caps did not convert. The referees overturned an apparent Brooks Laich goal that would have put the Caps up 2-1 early in the first period, but they were able to earn that lead back when Eric Fehr took a centering pass from Jason Chimera in the slot. After that, things went downhill.
"We had a really good game plan and we had it going for a while," Fehr said. "We kind of gave up on our plan and things didn't go well after that."
Much like they did against the Rangers, the Caps crashed the net, but even as a flailing Roloson rolled around his crease, the Caps couldn't take advantage, missing 10 shots on the night. The Lightning's offense was too good to be held down for long and they made the Caps pay for their missed chances when Steve Downie and Steven Stamkos scored 3:11 apart at the end of the second period to take control of the game.
"We had some chances to put them down 3-1," Jason Chimera said. "We've got to bear down and score some of those goals. Those are killers when you get up 3-1 in a playoff game. I think that's a good lesson for us."
Perhaps the most peculiar part of the game came in the third period when Washington abandoned its new-found defensive style for what Gordon called the "run and gun" offense that defined Capitals teams of the recent past. With Tampa Bay clamping down on defense, it looked like any sort of game plan went out the window. Ovechkin began to do everything himself and his teammates took long-range shots from the point that were either blocked or easily saved by Roloson. The Caps had two power plays in the third period and five for the game, but the Lightning's stellar penalty-killing unit, which has given up only power play goal in eight games, shut them down.
"This wasn't the way we play," Boudreau said. "It was reverting back to an older day."
One play midway through the third period epitomized the type of game that the Caps played. Ovechkin found Nicklas Backsrom alone in the slot, much like Chimera found Fehr for Washington's second goal. Backstrom had a quality scoring chance, but did not even put the puck on net and missed the shot wide. Boudreau said after the game that every goal, no matter how it is scored, impacts the game, but Friday, it was the goals that weren't scored that ultimately led to the Caps' demise.
"We didn't score goals, but I think we had chances," Ovechkin said. "I think we took too many bad penalties in the second period and it cost us the game. Especially when you get the lead, you can't do it. We understand it, so it's going to be a different game in the next one. I think we played very well the last 10 minutes of the first period and the first 10 minutes of the second. When we got the lead we didn't play our game. I think we played too cute and we took lots of penalties and it cost us. It's over and we've got to be ready for next game."