by Jon Jordan on 05/02/11 at 10:45 AM ET
The Tampa Bay Lightning pushed division rival Washington all year, perhaps forcing the division champs to elevate their game to a level they wouldn’t have reached themselves, regardless of the regular season success they’ve enjoyed in four straight seasons.
Now, as Tampa Bay’s push has continued into the second round of the playoffs, where they currently lead Washington 2-0, it’s as simple as the Capitals having no other choice but to push back – if they even have it in them.
It’s beyond gut-check time for the Caps, the perennial postseason underachievers who now head to Tampa in quite the hole, up against a Lightning squad that has exhibited incredible resolve and team commitment, not only of late in the playoffs, but all year long.
They did so again last night, without key contributors up front and on defense, with forward Simon Gagne and defenseman Pavel Kubina both lost to probable concussions in game one. Lo and behold, a replacement Jones for each hobbled player stepped in adeptly in the game two win. Forward Blair had a momentum-changing quick shift in overtime just before Vincent Lecavalier’s game-winner and defenseman Randy made the breakout pass to Teddy Purcell that led directly to the decisive score.
But that’s just it about the Lightning – one guy goes down to injury or, at times, doesn’t play well and another steps up – or, in this case, two.
On the Washington side of things? To this point, not so much.
How disappointing it must be, from their perspective, after showing such character in retaking the division from Tampa in the regular season and managing to get past the New York Rangers in the first round only to fall behind two games to none on home ice soon after. The Caps were rested too (perhaps too much?) while the Lightning started this series less than 48 hours after finishing off the Pittsburgh Penguins in a grueling seven-gamer.
That last night’s loss came on the heels of a late rally, with Alex Ovechkin scoring to tie the game with just over a minute to go in the third, serves to double the letdown factor which Washington now has no choice but to get over in extremely short order if they hope to have any chance at redemption against Tampa Bay.
From a Lightning standpoint, the game two win means that much more, having overcome the Ovechkin equalizer, since “what if?” questions would certainly have loomed had the Caps been able to complete the comeback.
There’s a huge difference between a 1-1 series split after two games and a 2-0 commanding lead. Win one on the road to open a playoff series and home ice shifts to your advantage. With Tampa Bay winning both, Washington now faces the arduous task of needing to win four of the next five (and at least twice in Tampa) to advance.
And the Lightning now have an incredible opportunity sitting in their laps, coming home needing just two more wins to reach the Eastern Conference Final. They didn’t just steal home ice in Washington, they may have stolen the whole damn thing, though their work is only half-done in this series and, rest assured, they fully understand just that.
But with games three and four set for back-to-back nights at the St. Pete Times Forum tomorrow and Wednesday, they could very well make this as short a conference semifinal as one will ever see, with the potential to wrap it all up in the span of six days.
Just like that.
Surely, that wasn’t how Washington expected things to go.
They’ve been pushed yet again by those pesky Bolts and are now in dire need of a hefty push back. In the coming days, this Washington Capitals team is facing as big a character test as it has had, period. Their talent has never been questioned but the character card has been played time and again. And, if they’re sick of hearing that, they simply have no choice but to do something about it.
Problem is, there’s plenty of character standing in the way on the other side complicating matters. In these very playoffs, the Lightning have had major contributions from stars like Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, but also from hardhat types like Sean Bergenheim, Steve Downie and Dominic Moore. Veteran defenseman Eric Brewer has been a steadying force on the blueline, but second-year NHLer Victor Hedman is also coming into his own more and more on a nightly basis. And goaltender Dwayne Roloson has been aces in crunch time (which is basically what the playoffs are all about, as a whole. From that angle, Roloson’s body of work – 1.80 goals-against average/.947 save percentage – stands tall as well.)
For Tampa Bay, it doesn’t matter who steps up, so long as someone does. While Washington’s star power still runs deep, they’d be best-served in adopting that same philosophy from this point forward.
Continued failure will call for the continued calling out of the Ovechkins, Semins, Backstroms and Greens but, for Washington, it doesn’t matter who gets it done (or how, quite frankly). The Caps are faced, very plainly, with just having to get the job done at this point.
Whether or not they’re up for it, unfortunately, will continue to be the question.
The Lightning’s regular season push in the Southeast Division brought out the best in the Capitals. Now they’ve pushed them very close to the edge of their playoff lives and we’ll soon see what the end result of that will be.
Either the best of these Capitals only actually exists in the regular season or, well…
We haven’t exactly seen that “or” yet, have we?
Push back now, Washington, or yet another postseason fall looms near.
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