Prior to the series, Tampa Bay Coach Guy Boucher attempted to take the pressure off of his tired club by comparing his team’s plight against the Eastern Conference #1 seeded Washington Capitals as “David vs. Goliath.” In the end, his team turned out to be the Goliath while the Capitals looked disorganized and ended up being over matched. The Lightning took out the brooms and completed a sweep of the Capitals with a 5-3 game four victory that certainly has to have Caps Nation in an uproar. Tampa will move on to the Eastern Conference Finals to likely take on the Boston Bruins while Washington will pack up their stuff and disperse for the summer.
To recap game four won’t take long. Tampa continued to stick to their system and used their superior speed up front to take advantage of an injury decimated Capitals blue line. With Mike Green and Dennis Wideman still out of the lineup the Caps dressed Sean Collins in his first NHL playoff game, and #62 only played 6:10, which made every other d-man have to play more. The Bolts were supposed to be the more tired club but they continued to beat Washington to loose puck after loose puck. Sean Bergenheim and Dominic Moore totally dominated play when they were on the ice, and they are third line guys. When you get that kind of production from the supporting cast, your club is tough to defeat. The Bolts were clearly the stronger team in front of both nets and as a result they scored more goals.
Washington was supposed to have an advantage with their forwards against a slow Tampa blue line in this matchup but it never really played out that way as the Capitals struggled to defeat the Bolts 1-3-1 scheme. Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson was good, but he wasn’t great. His team played better and more structured in front of him while the Caps had too many defensive zone breakdowns.
I am sure we will hear all about the injuries that several Capitals played through but after 80+ games nearly every team has guys who are hurt. There is no doubt though that the injury to Dennis Wideman was one that has to have Washington management thinking “what if?” #6 was great on the back line and quickly became the team’s go to d-man with Green out injured. He was also a super power play point man. General Manager George McPhee and Coach Bruce Boudreau never had the chance to play Wideman, Green, and John Carlson all in the same game. In fact, with Green missing nearly the whole third period in game three and all of game four it put a ton of pressure on #74 and he finally wilted, playing one of his weaker games of the year. But Carlson is one of the the last guys I will blame for this series loss and he will only get better.
What is disturbing is the drop off in production from Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin. #28 looked totally disinterested in game three and was marginally better in game four after he had a very strong first round series against the New York Rangers. He seemed more focused on going over to the World Championships to help out Team Russia. Backstrom was uncharacteristically moved off of the puck too often and seemed to lose his hands. I would bet the farm that he had some injury, but still, he was given a ton of ice time and didn’t produce.
Michal Neuvirth started strong in the post season but seemed to wear down at the end. Still, to blame the goalie for this series loss would be ridiculous. I was a little surprised that Semyon Varlamov was not brought in when the score reached 3-1 in period two, but given how tough the Bolts were making it on the Capitals offense, it likely wouldn’t have mattered. So in the end, you have to tip your hat to Lightning GM Steve Yzerman who went out and acquired Roloson to make up for his otherwise horrible goaltending and the trade for defensemen Eric Brewer at the deadline was monumental. Boucher did his part by coaching brilliantly and his top players, Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos, and Martin St. Louis produced. The Bolts deserved to win this series.
On the Caps end, there is nothing but questions now and this series will most likely be remembered for the worst line change in Washington Capitals franchise history, which cost the Capitals game two and likely the series. The “too many men” penalty that wiped out the first goal in game three was inexcusable, as well. After two straight seasons of stunning playoff endings, changes have to be made. How far reaching they go is now up to the ownership to decide because this growing fan base cannot be pleased with another post season loss to a lower seeded club, regardless of who was healthy or not. Another summer of incremental changes just doesn’t seem to hold water right now. So you can bet that owner Ted Leonsis will do a full analysis of the situation and provide rationale for what he does or doesn’t do. Stay tuned for an interesting next several days…