Trailing two games to none heading to Tampa for game three was definitely not a position this Washington Capitals team ever imagined they would be in on Monday afternoon. The Caps have lost two close, hard fought hockey contests primarily due to their own mistakes and now are in a very difficult position. There is nothing they can do about those losses now so they have to focus solely on winning on Tuesday night. Strategic and tactical adjustments will likely be made by the coaches but to me the most important thing for the Capitals now is for their team leaders to stand up and take control of the team.
Alexander Ovechkin is the team captain but he has pretty much admitted he also relies on veterans Mike Knuble, Jason Arnott, and Scott Hannan to help him in the leadership department. How that trio gets a still very young hockey team to settle down and not panic will be crucial to the rest of this series. Arnott has been through a Stanley Cup run that included his New Jersey Devils team rallying from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals. That team had great leaders such as Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, and Claude Lemieux so I would have to imagine that #44 will likely pull from that experience to help his club try and turn around a series that has not gone according to plan.
Past NHL playoff series are filled with teams coming back from 2-0 deficits including the 1991 and 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Granted both of those rallies came with game three and four victories on home ice but each year it seems that where an NHL post season game is played matters less and less. That was evident in the first round this spring when the Boston Bruins dropped the first two tilts in Beantown before prevailing in seven games over the Montreal Canadiens.
As I mentioned following game two, Michal Neuvirth, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner were members of the Hershey Bears team that dropped the first two tilts at the Giant Center last spring before winning three straight in Austin en route to a six game Calder Cup victory. After the Bears won that series, I remember talking to King Karl on the ice in Chocolatetown and he said the whole key to the turnaround was the outstanding leadership that Bears team had. Captain Bryan Helmer apparently led a players only meeting before game three and reminded everyone to stick to the game plan being put together by Head Coach Mark French. That leadership became ULTRA important when Hershey fell behind 3-1 after the first period of game three. But the Bears, who were on a 0 for 16 power play stretch, got a power play goal from veteran Keith Aucoin and from there on out it was all Hershey.
Through two games of this Eastern Conference semi-final series with Tampa the Caps are carrying the majority of the play, but like the Bears did last spring, trailed primarily due to their own mistakes. Similarly, the Washington power play is in a funk going 0 for 11 in the first two tilts. Yes, I get that this in the NHL and not the AHL, but that experience should be valuable for #27 and #74, Washington’s best shut down defensive pair.
So I imagine that Arnott and company met on Monday night and he drilled home the point that the Caps have to stick to their game plan. They cannot afford to make lazy plays, take bad penalties, and commit the mental mistakes that led to a game two costing bad line change. They must get pucks deep in the Tampa zone and get their cycle game going because that is the best way to wear out the Bolts defense to make it easier to get chances in front of red hot Dwayne Roloson, who seems to be stopping everything he is seeing. They also must be responsible in their own zone and not allow the Lightning skill players any time and space.
The Capitals are an immensely talented team with Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green, but winning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not about talent. It takes commitment, patience, team play, and a group of players that bond together to form great chemistry. This team has been through a great deal together this season and they must rely on their past ability to get through those tough times and overcome yet another obstacle. That is why the leadership is so important at this stage, because players can’t single handily try to win the game with their skill and talent, it takes everyone on the roster working together and sticking to the game plan in order to get the desired victory. We’ll soon find out if the leadership on this current Capitals roster has what it takes to get things turned around for Washington.