With a solid first round series victory over the New York Rangers behind them, I do not think the Washington Capitals are in the mode of being complacent nor are they satisfied so far in these 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Eastern Conference #1 seeded Caps head into round two with a significant advantage over their opponents, the Tampa Bay Lightning, because they have played less games. In the post season, every contest is a grind and the wear and tear on a player’s body seems to exponentiate as play moves into May and beyond.
Tampa will likely come in to game one riding high on emotion after rallying from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Caps, on the other hand, have been off resting and healing up since last Saturday. As Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau stated today, his club will either be labeled as rested or rusty after game one.
There is no doubt that the Lightning are a better hockey team than the New York Rangers from a talent perspective. The Bolts have some serious skill in their lineup with Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Vincent LeCavalier, and Simon Gagne. But the Rangers had an outstanding work ethic and were well coached by John Tortorella and that should have Boudreau’s club very much prepared going forward.
This series is going to come down to the matchups and the Caps ability to maintain their solid defensive posture. Tampa loves to get a lead and then sit back in their 1-3-1 system and wait for turnovers and odd man rushes. Patience for Washington will be important in this series. In addition, finding ways to generate speed through the neutral zone is a major key for the Caps. If they can come into the Bolts zone with speed, it will force a big, but slow, Tampa blue line to back pedal. That will open up scoring lanes for Washington. Thus many of the things the Caps dealt with against New York apply in this round and one of those is that they cannot turn the puck over in the neutral zone or at the Bolts blue line. They have to get the puck deep in the Tampa zone by dumping the biscuit or bringing it in with speed. The puck rushing ability of Mike Green and John Carlson plus Dennis Wideman, if he can return at some point in the series, will be critical for a Caps victory.
Overall, I expect another series where every game is very close. If the Caps work hard like they did in the last 52 minutes of game four and most of game five from round one, they will be awfully tough to beat. During those sequences the Capitals played simple hockey and stuck to their system. They were aggressive with the forecheck without giving up defensive responsibility. They really took the message of playing the game one shift at a time to heart and totally implemented it. If they can do that in round two, there is no doubt that it will once again be the Caps time to shine.