By Stu Hackel
Three games are on the playoff schedule tonight, and that won't happen again this season, so fans have to figure out what they're going to watch. If you don't have a favorite among the six teams, its possible you'll be attracted to Capitals-Lightning Game 4 because of all the attention that Alex Ovechkin and company have gotten in recent years and the possibility that -- once again -- this marquee NHL club could crash and burn long before many expected their elimination from the postseason.
Now trailing Tampa Bay 3-0 in this best of seven, having lost 4-3 on the road on Tuesday night, Washington doesn't seem anything like the defensively oriented club it supposedly was transformed into during the season by coach Bruce Boudreau. The Caps couldn't hold a 2-1 lead in the second period or a 3-2 lead in the third. And when they fell behind, they didn't seem like the offensive juggernaut they had been or a team with much fight, will or character.
If anything, the Caps in Game 3 seemed more like last year's playoff failure, the one that was unable to make adjustments to a better defensive scheme -- the one that Montreal threw at them -- as they reverted to their panic mode of individualistic play and sloppy defending of their own net. Throughout the contest, the Lightning were able to expose weaknesses in the Caps' blueline corps, particularly their lack of speed and some poor decision-making.
It started early, with the first goal by Tampa Bay's very effective line of Dominic Moore, Sean Bergenheim and Steve Downie -- perhaps the best third line in the playoffs. They rushed into the Caps' zone twice in succession midway through the first period and badly confused the duo of John Erskine and Mike Green. On the first rush, Bergenheim beat Green to the outside to pick up a pass, cut in on Caps goalie Michael Neuvirth, and barely missed scoring the opening goal. Green was once considered the NHL's best skating defenseman and perhaps his injuries this season have taken their toll, but he looked slow on that one. Off-balance, the Caps then lost a battle on the boards just outside their blueline as Brooks Laich was outnumbered by Downie and Bergenheim. Erskine, not a great skater at any point in his career, tried to join the challenge, but the puck was behind him in a flash and the Lightning had only Green to beat. He didn't play the odd man rush particularly well and the result was the game's first goal.
It wasn't the only time that Tampa Bay's third line dominated Green and Erskine on Tuesday night and Boudreau doesn't have much choice of which tandem to put on it. He can't use his top duo of Karl Alzner and John Carlson; that duo is needed against the even more dangerous line of Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell.
You couldn't say that Neuvirth looked good on that first goal, nor was he sharp on the one by Lecavalier that later tied the game 2-2 in the second period (video). Uncertain goaltending was no longer supposed to plague the Caps, but in a game they had to have, their young goalie didn't come through and it's not impossible that Boudreau, who was openly critical of Neuvirth, might make a change for Game 4.
But besides Neuvirth's shortcomings in this game, the Caps new reputation as a team that would be hard to play against proved to be less than advertised as they were outworked on the cycle by the Lightning leading to that second Tampa Bay goal. And again their lack of speed and mobility cost them when Scott Hannan couldn't contain St. Louis on the wall and Jeff Schultz was outmaneuvered by Lecavalier in front of the net. Credit Lighting coach Guy Boucher for getting his top line on against that defense pair and he'll certainly take that matchup again if he can get it.
The Lightning's defense corps was thought to be Tampa Bay's weak link, but it is getting some fine play out of big, young Victor Hedman, who did great work to set up the tying goal by Steven Stamkos, first ramming a clearing shot back into the Caps' zone to keep the pressure on, then making a strong pinch to keep the play alive before Stamkos' wonderful wrist shot finished the play.
In their own end of the ice, the Bolt's defense is well insulated with Boucher's 1-3-1 system in place. When the Caps shoot the puck in, the back defender often does a good job of quickly turning the play the other way. Boudreau has tried to counter that in various ways. One is shooting the puck at Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson and making him handle it rather than sending it to the corner. It gives the Caps some extra time to get in on the forecheck, but Roloson, who is not a great puckhandler, hasn't had too many problems with that approach and his teammates are coming back and battling hard to win the puck and start on the offensive. As a consequence, the Caps aren't getting much sustained pressure in the offensive zone.
And that leads to frustration and the sight of Alex Ovechkin trying to do it all himself, which is also reminiscent of last season's first-round defeat. Time and again, Ovie replicates the old-time crash-through rush that was a feature of the NHL in the days of Eddie Shore and Howie Morenz. He's big, strong, fast and skilled but, 80 years later, the NHL is more of a team game, and the ineffectiveness of Ovie's one-man show is obvious as he either gets stood up by the Lightning defenders -- Eric Brewer is doing a masterful job of staying in his face -- or he wipes out on his own. Meanwhile, Ovechkin's linemates seem mostly along for the ride. Nicklas Backstrom has been largely invisible and there's speculation that he may be playing hurt (although he had a poor season). Mike Knuble, who missed some games in the last round with a suspected broken hand, seems to be uncharacteristically quiet as well and is probably also less than 100 percent. Ovie's solo act may be more out of necessity than anything, but it's still not working.
Over on the other bench, Boucher has mixed his forwards well. He dresses only 11 of them with Simon Gagne out of the lineup, so he has less than four full lines to work with. But he deploys everyone to their best advantage and right after the Stamkos goal, he threw Nate Thompson, Ryan Malone and Adam Hall out and they notched the winner, with Thompson beating a lethargic Backstrom to the net
After the Lightning scored the go-ahead goal, the Caps still had 16 minutes to push back. Instead, they were the ones pushed on as the Lightning were clearly the more aggressive club. Tampa Bay took the next five shots on goal while every Washington foray was smothered by the Lightning defense. And when the Caps went on the only power play handed out for the balance of the game, the best scoring chance was by the Lightning. Washington looked like a defeated team, not the one that finished first in the Eastern Conference with high hopes high of not merely a deep playoff run, but the Stanley Cup they felt they should have won last year.
The playoffs are all about raising your level of play. The Caps did that in the first round against the Rangers, the Lightning did it in their first round against the Penguins, but only Tampa Bay has upped its play in this round. The Caps have one more chance to raise theirs or face another long summer and some very hard questions about where this club is and where it has to go.