Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

NHL playoffs 2011: No time for the Capitals, and their fans, to panic

The sky-is-falling Capitals fans want one thing written today. Because they’re so used to doom enveloping their franchise every spring, they want angst, desperation, panic. They want, “OUR SEASON IS 48 HOURS FROM MELTING IN TAMPA!”

But I am here to say: Relax.

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Washington Capitals' players react to the overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series on Sunday. (May 1)

Washington Capitals' players react to the overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series on Sunday. (May 1)

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Despite losing its first two games on home ice, this team has got this series — very likely in six games, seven if Ovi and the boys must.

This isn’t a bit; in fact, the likely outcome has already been etched in Stanley Cup playoff annals, circa, oh, 2003.

Look it up: Lightning-Capitals, first round. Two games into their 2011 matchup, the symmetry between the two series almost eight years later is almost eerie.

Back then, an older Caps team beat a young and inexperienced Tampa Bay club twice on the road before the Lightning’s young legs began to figure out a veteran goaltender in Olie Kolzig, and Nikolai Khabibulin recovered from two shaky starts.

A Washington team featuring an aging Peter Bondra was actually hampered by playing back-to-back games on home ice (on back-to-back religious holidays, no less). The 2011 Lightning have to play on Tuesday and Wednesday because of scheduling conflicts with their arena.

The Caps never got the bounces after Game 2 in 2003 and lost four straight. Martin St. Louis was just 27, Vincent Lecavalier was a mere 23. Jaromir Jagr, shadowed for much of the series by his Czech Republic countryman Pavel Kubina, scored just two goals while playing with a sore wrist.

Ted Leonsis’s strategy of buying someone else’s star to win a Stanley Cup died the night the Caps lost in triple overtime at home, on a goal scored by St. Louis, before a paltry crowd.

“I have to really reconsider the kind of commitment and investment I’m making with this team,’’ Leonsis said at the time. “I’m not a quitter. . . . It was hard to see 14,000 fans. I don’t like the treatment that we’re getting from the building. The party’s over. To play back-to-back games on Passover and Easter Sunday does not help.’’

Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee soon backed up the truck, hauled out the garbage and started over. With a lockout looming, Leonsis embraced new-age NHL frugality by dumping everybody and building through youth. Then came the drafting of the next NHL superstar, Alex Ovechkin, who less than three years later became hockey’s first $100 million player, and was joined by Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin to form one of the youngest, most talented nucleuses ever assembled.

But now, Washington fans, the shoe is now on the other foot: With the exception of Steven Stamkos, the Caps have the resilient kids on their roster, and the Lightning could become old very quickly if it doesn’t pay attention at home.

Lecavalier isn’t ancient at 31, certainly not after he scored twice, including the winner in overtime Sunday night in Game 2. But he isn’t the NHL postseason rookie he was in 2003 anymore.

“It was my first time in the playoffs,” Lecavalier said outside Tampa Bay’s locker room Sunday night, recounting his team’s series win in 2003. “I was so young and had so much energy. I don’t want to say I felt invincible, but when you’re that young, it doesn’t bother you when you’re down 2-0 in a series. You really think you can do anything.

“I just look at us being down to Pittsburgh 3-1 in the last round and how we rallied and stole a game or two. That’s what happened here tonight.”

That’s another good omen for the Capitals heading south. Outside of both third periods — and a lazy line change in overtime in Game 2 — Washington has outplayed and outshot Tampa Bay. The other difference has been Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson, who was 21 when Stamkos was born, 41 now and outstanding through the series’ first two games.

Watching Roloson arch his back and hand-pack his own two extra-large equipment bags with pads, gloves and masks, it dawned on me: Wednesday night in Tampa, the old man between the pipes will be playing his third game in four nights.

Backstrom can’t stay quiet forever this postseason. Once Ovechkin starts trusting his teammates again and realizing he can’t do it alone, it could be open season on Roloson.

Among the ice-time regulars, the Capitals have almost half the number of key players over 30 that the Lightning has on its roster.

So save the panic; the tables are about to turn.

They have to, because the alternative means that eight years after Leonsis blew up the team, his new bells-and-whistles roster is nowhere close to where St. Louis and Lecavalier were in 2003. Worse, it would mean that the young and determined Tampa Bay skaters who directly inspired what Washington has become in 2011 are still better when it counts than the most dynamic young player in the game and his frustrated linemates. It would mean Ovechkin and friends are still not ready. Forty-eight hours before possible elimination, I just don’t see that happening.

One last piece of symmetry the loyal legions won’t like from 2003. The Lightning didn’t win the Stanley Cup until the following year. So even after the Caps win this series in six or seven, if this theory holds, they'll most likely have to wait till 2012 to hoist the trophy at Verizon Center.

When old-man Roloson is pulled late in Game 4, you will remember these words like you remember the words of the late, great Herb Brooks in the cinematic Disney classic, “Miracle:”

“This is our time. Their time is over.”

 
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