May 13 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7 and FAN 106.7
Game 2, Eastern Conference final series. Caps lead, 1-0.
For the first time in three playoff rounds this spring, the Caps are on the road to start the series. And for the first time in three playoff rounds this spring, the Caps own a 1-0 series lead. Washington rolled up a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night in Tampa in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, and now its focus turns entirely to Game 2 on Sunday in the same location.
The Caps jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period and stretched that advantage to 4-0 before the midway mark of the middle frame, showing that thy had put their exhilarating second-round series win over Pittsburgh in the proper place, behind them.
“I thought we did a great job from the start to the finish,” says Caps winger T.J. Oshie. “There was a little lull there in the third period where we knew [the Bolts] were going to have a push, and we kind of shots ourselves in the foot a little bit with a couple of penalties, but I thought we did a good job of regrouping there at the end of the game and closing the door.”
“One thing that we really wanted to focus on was to not have a letdown after obviously there was a lot of emotions in our locker room after that series win,” says Caps goalie Braden Holtby, who is now 9-3 in the 2018 playoffs. “I think right away our leadership group, you enjoy it while it’s there, but we had a couple of days to really just refocus, put it out of our mind and scout the Lightning to see what we can do to have success against them, and to still look at ourselves, because there are areas where we can improve, too.
“We just went right back to work and I thought the guys responded really well for this game. But at this time of the year, every game gets harder, you’ve got to have more commitment in those areas, and Game 2 obviously we know is going to be our hardest game of the year yet, and I think guys are looking forward to that challenge.”
Tampa Bay dropped Game 1 of its previous series against Boston, and it went on to take the next four games of the set, sending the Bruins home for the summer. The Lightning was the league’s highest scoring team during the regular season, but the Bolts were limited to just two shots on net after 20 minutes on Friday, and the Lightning had 10 shots on goal after 40 minutes of play.
“I think they had a few flurries,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson of the Lightning, “but I think in the neutral zone we were great. There were maybe two or three plays where they really entered [Washington ice] with speed and were dangerous through the first two periods. I think it just speaks to our commitment to what we do. The harder we work to execute it, the harder it is on them. It gets frustrating when teams are playing real structured.”
Washington has now held the opposition to no more than one five-on-five goal in seven straight games. The Caps have permitted an average of 29.4 shots on net per game in the postseason, third lowest in the playoffs.
Friday’s win came in the second straight game in which the Caps had to play without center Nicklas Backstrom, one of the league’s best centers. The Caps won Game 6 of the Pittsburgh series without Backstrom as well as the opener against the Lightning. It was a week ago that Backstrom was injured late in Game 5 of the Pittsburgh series, and he is still listed as day-to-day.
Eller has moved up a line in Backstrom’s absence, and he delivered his usual beastly performance on Friday. Eller finished the night with a power-play goal and 20:35 in ice time, more than any forward on either side.
“I don’t think the mindset changes a lot,” says Eller. “I try to play the same game I have played the whole year when I go out there on the ice – I want to play in the opposition’s zone, I want to score goals, I want to create offense. So my mindset really doesn’t change a lot. I know I’m going to be playing a couple more minutes and we all as a team have to step up a little more – me and some other guys who are going to get increased roles when a guy like Nicky is out.”
In the two games Backstrom has missed, the Caps have scored four goals at five-on-five, with three of them coming from Backstrom’s fellow pivots: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle.
“Obviously we know probably better than anyone how complete a player Nick is,” says Holtby, especially defensively. “He does a ton of things that don’t get noticed, except for from us. I think our guys respect Nick so much that w know we have to step up, because he is a huge spot to fill and our guys are doing a phenomenal job, especially up the middle. Stevie is stepping in to play center and the guys are doing good. But we know [the Bolts] are going to come even harder next game. We’re going to have to have an even better game.”
Washington has now won nine of its last 11 games in the playoffs, and it has won six of its seven road games.
“You get a little bit of confidence because you’ve won the last couple of games,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “You have that confidence that you gain from winning. But at the same time, we recognize that Tampa Bay is a really good hockey team and they’re going to bring their ‘A’ game. They’re going to have some desperation in their game, and we’d better have some desperation in our game. It’s trying to get to four [wins] as fast as you can.”
Washington knows that winning Game 1 of a series means little, and that it has much more work ahead in getting past the Lightning, which is a much better team than it showed on Friday night.
“It’s unfortunate how we’ve played these Game Ones the last couple of rounds,” says Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, “and dug ourselves a small hole in the series. I guess on the positive side, we’ve been here before, so we’ve seen this.
“But we can’t keep playing with fire and dropping these Game Ones, which we’ve done. All of a sudden, you’ve thrown home ice advantage back at them, you’ve put pressure on yourself, you’ve got to go win some games on the road, which you have to do anyway in the playoffs. But your margin for error just gets smaller and smaller, so we’re really going to need a good effort [Sunday] night.”
As for the Caps, they have already pocketed the victory they came here to get in Game 1, and now they can get greedy and set their sights on landing another one in Sunday’s Game 2.
“I think it’s all going to be in our preparation,” says Oshie. “A lot of emphasis is going to be on the start. I imagine that building is going to be on fire – they’re going to be loud. I imagine we’re going to get a pretty good pushback from a really good hockey team over there, so we’re going to have to stay focused and not get ahead of ourselves.
“I said it [Friday] night, I can’t imagine that we’re going to see the same Tampa team that we saw in the first period the rest of the series. We’ve got to be ready for a dogfight, and be as prepared as possible.”