WASHINGTON - The lockout has been lifted.
At least that's the feeling for the Washington Capitals, who finally get to play another playoff game after nearly a week of waiting.
"I couldn't believe how long it took to find out who we were going to play," right wing Eric Fehr said. "It felt like a month."
The Capitals were just too good, finishing off the New York Rangers in five games while the other Eastern Conference series all went to seven. It wasn't until the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0 late Wednesday that coach Bruce Boudreau could finally start focusing on a specific game plan.
"It's amazing, quite frankly, the difference of knowing who your opponent is and not knowing," Boudreau said. "You feel like you're sort of waiting and lost in space. It makes the series an awful lot closer."
Closer, indeed. The NHL schedule-makers provided little rest for the weary Lightning.
Game 1 in the conference semifinal series is set for Friday, a turnaround so quick that Tampa Bay had to fly straight to the nation's capital immediately after the Game 7 win in Pittsburgh. Coach Guy Boucher opted not to have a practice Thursday, so his fifth-seeded team will open against the top-seeded Capitals fuelled with adrenaline and momentum, while Washington has had time to get healthier and run every practice drill in the book since its last game against New York on Saturday.
By all rights, the Capitals should have the clear advantage. That didn't stop them from trying to claim otherwise.
"There's advantage to both sides," right wing Matt Bradley said. "They're obviously going to be in game mode. They're not going to be sluggish or anything like that."
Boudreau has been around long enough that he already knows how the Game 1 verdict will be assessed, depending on which team wins.
"If we're successful, you guys will say they're tired," Boudreau said. "If we're not, for the most part we're rusty."
There was no such attempt at balance at the Lightning's downtown hotel. Boucher said the Capitals clearly have the advantage and "right now they seem impossible to beat."
Boucher then did everything he could to dump all the pressure on Washington.
"We're not kidding ourselves right here," he said. "We think we're playing the best team in our conference. It's the team that's No. 1. It's the team that's supposed to win everything in our conference. It's the fifth year of their plan. They have to win, we know that. They have to win, or else it's a failure."
Fortunately for both coaches, there's not much studying required of the opponent. The Southeast Division rivals played a half-dozen times this season, with Washington winning four. An interesting Boudreau-Boucher chess match developed along the way.
With extra days to prepare for a Feb. 4 game in Tampa Bay, Boudreau prepared like an NFL coach and came out with a basketball strategy. He essentially had his defenceman play the four corners, passing the puck back and forth against the Lightning's 1-3-1 setup in the neutral zone.
The fans booed, and time ticked away until Boucher sent in a forechecker from centre ice. The Capitals won 5-2.
The next time the teams met, the Lightning applied more pressure. The game played out more conventionally, with the Capitals winning in a shootout.
Now they have to put up with each other over a seven-game series.
"Patience is important," Boudreau said, "but whatever we do, the biggest thing is we don't turn the puck over."
The series features the two best goaltenders so far in the playoffs. Dwayne Roloson, who shut out the Penguins on Wednesday, leads the NHL in save percentage (.949) in the post-season, while Michal Neuvirth has the best goals-against-average (1.38). Roloson shut out Washington twice in the regular season; Neuvirth went 1-0 vs. Tampa Bay.
"There's going to be no surprises, no sneak plays, I don't think," Bradley said. "We've played six times this year."