In the last two nights, we've seen teams respond
The same thing occurred Friday, as the Lightning, Game 7 victors from the last round, looked more ready to compete on their terms than the top-seeded Capitals in Game 1 of the Eastern semis. Washington ended its first-round battle with the Rangers in five games; the Bolts, in turn, even had to travel from Pittsburgh on their off day. Again, though, the rested team was ragged and the battle-tested club fared better.
Certainly, the Capitals had enough quality chances in the first half of the game to put distance between themselves and the Lightning. The point is, they didn't. The Lightning struck first, but the Capitals countered with two markers of their own. Bolts netminder Dwayne Roloson made several classic clutch saves in the second period, but he had his share of puck luck as well. But, the near-misses, yielding the first goal and taking three minor penalties in the second period alone pointed to the Caps lack of sharpness on this night. They came out hitting everything and made plays on the attack, but they just weren't quite, well, themselves.
Meanwhile, the Lightning continued to stick to their formula of surviving on 5-on-5s and winning based on special teams, detailed hard work and necessary saves. Trailing 2-1, the Bolts scored twice, taking the 40-minute lead on a Steve Stamkos power-play goal. Stamkos caught rookie Michal Neuvirth leaning and victimized him on the short side -- the second such goal of the night. Like the rest of his team, Neuvirth was OK, when compared to past performances. He wasn't the reason the Caps trail 1-0 in the series -- just part of a team effort that donated home-ice advantage to the Lightning.
Any anticipated third-period pushback by the home side went mute -- stifled by the Lightning lock-down mode, code 1-3-1. They Bolts played brilliantly without the puck, keeping the Caps to the outside. Credit the Lightning; but the Caps were also far too obliging. Expect more intensity in their collective game in Game 2. Anticipate stronger sticks around the net if you're a Caps fan. Look forward to more discipline when it comes to staying out of the penalty box. Maybe the hitting will be more pointed and not just an early series' false promise of readiness. Next time, the third period should yield more than five shots on goal -- with or without the lead.
Of course, the Lightning might just continue their thunder roll, having won four straight games. Five isn't out of the question, but expect the Capitals to hone their game in all areas next time around. Let the series begin ... for both teams.