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2011 NHL playoffs: Capitals will face Lightning in Eastern Conference semifinals

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Four days after they clinched a first-round playoff victory, the Washington Capitals finally know who they will square off against in the Eastern Conference semifinals: the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The first two games of the second-round, best-of-seven series will be held at Verizon Center at 7 p.m. Friday and Sunday. The stage shifts to Tampa for Games 3 and 4 next Tuesday and Wednesday.

Since defeating the New York Rangers in Game 5 of their best-of-seven series this past Saturday, the Capitals have had a chance to rest, recover, reinforce the principles of their systems and wait. Every other first-round series in the East went to seven games, and not until the Lightning defeated Pittsburgh, 1-0, on Wednesday night was Washington’s sparring partner set. Earlier Wednesday, Boston topped Montreal, 4-3, on an overtime winner by Nathan Horton to advance.

The Lightning surged back from the brink of elimination to win the final three games of their series against the Penguins.

The Lightning prevailed in Wednesday’s Game 7 led by Dwayne Roloson, who made 36 saves in the shutout, and Sean Bergenheim’s lone tally. Tampa Bay hasn’t reached the conference semifinals since 2004, the same year it won the Stanley Cup.

While Tampa Bay may start a new series less than 48 hours after wrapping up its first, the Capitals have already held two mandatory, full practices this week to iron out any kinks in their game plan.

Washington now has the ability to spend one day focusing on Tampa Bay. Aside from the extra time off, though, Coach Bruce Boudreau said he didn’t think there would be any significant strategy benefit to the layoff.

“It’ll definitely take its turn [Thursday] where we’ll know what we’re up against and we’ll have at least a practice,” Boudreau said earlier Wednesday. “If there’s any advantage, if you’re looking at advantages, we’ll be able to practice tomorrow on stuff that our opponents are going to be doing maybe whereas I’m sure that whatever team wins will have sort of a day off.”

As the Capitals and Lightning jockeyed for top billing in the Southeast Division over the course of the regular season, a spark reignited between the familiar foes.

Washington went 4-1-1 against the Lightning with a progression of styles that seemed to mirror its transformation from an offensive juggernaut to a more responsible group.

In their first two meetings of the season, the Capitals earned impressive 6-3 and 6-0 wins on Nov. 11 and 26, respectively. Alexander Semin recorded hat tricks in each and the Lightning, optimistic of a promising season with a new general manager, Steve Yzerman, and rookie coach, Guy Boucher, didn’t seem to ruffle Washington.

When the duo faced off twice in early January, though, the Lightning were a more poised and systematic group facing the Capitals, who were in the infancy stages of overhauling their system.

Tampa Bay bested Washington, 1-0, on Jan. 4 off a shootout goal by Martin St. Louis in a contest that despite the low score had a frenetic pace. Then on Jan. 12 in Tampa Bay, the Capitals fell flat and lost 3-0. Veteran netminder Roloson frustrated Washington in both of those contests, having arrived in Tampa Bay at midseason from the New York Islanders.

After those two frustrating outings against the Lightning, Washington wouldn’t see its divisional rival again until Feb. 4.

With ample time to prepare, the Capitals sealed a 5-2 victory by pestering Roloson and forcing the patient Tampa Bay squad by forcing it to make the first move.

The final meeting resulted in a 2-1 shootout victory for Washington with a deciding marker by Alex Ovechkin.

Braden Holtby earned the win, making 21 saves as the rest of the team rallied around him in a game that played an important role in Washington securing a fourth division title. Holtby entered the game at the start of the second period when Michal Neuvirth was unable to continue after a puck hit his mask and sent a shard of metal into his eye.

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