Two games in, Caps and Lightning may have a rivalry on our hands


Matt Bradley is sent into the Lightning bench in the third period of Game 2. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Sunday night’s overtime loss may have been heartbreaking for the Washington Capitals, but it shouldn’t have been surprising. What we saw in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was a meeting between two fairly evenly matched teams who are familiar with each other from division play and are just beginning to develop a nasty little rivalry.

When Vincent Lecavalier scored in overtime to give the Lightning a 3-2 victory at Verizon Center, it meant more than a two-games-to-none lead for Tampa Bay in this best-of-seven series, with back-to-back games in Florida still ahead. It also was the renewal of a pivotal rivalry for both teams.

The Capitals have won the Southeast Division the past four seasons and were 4-1-1 against Tampa Bay during the regular season. But the Lightning led the division for much of the season and finished just four points behind the Capitals, their best showing since winning the Stanley Cup in 2004. In one season under General Manager Steve Yzerman and Coach Guy Boucher, they made a 23-point improvement in the standings.

The Caps and Lightning have much in common: strong goaltenders (although Dwayne Roloson is old enough to be Michal Neuvirth’s father, he’s playing like his younger brother), offensive talent, smothering penalty kills and coaches who paid their dues in the American Hockey League.

However, the teams’ styles are different, and right now, so are their trajectories.

“It’s a tough loss,” said Washington’s Brooks Laich. “But give them credit. They capitalized on their opportunities and on our mistakes. We’ve been in this position before and we’ve come back. We’re going to regroup and come back on Tuesday.”

Laich is right; the Caps have been here before, down 2-0 to the New York Rangers two years ago in the first round before coming back to win the series in seven games. After a fairly easy five-gamer over the Rangers in the first round, the Caps might have been hoping for more of the same. But the Bolts are dangerous because while they are a very good team, they are in the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. Expectations aren’t weighing them down.

And it doesn’t hurt that they’ve gotten some breaks — a goal that bounces off Mike Green’s skate and past Neuvirth, a goal in overtime during a sloppy line change. When a team plays as well as the Lightning is, and gets some bounces, it starts thinking it is invincible. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

“Guys are pretty down right now,” said Karl Alzner. “Losing in overtime never feels good.”

Winning two on the road to start a seven-game series, though, that’s a different story. Tampa Bay has to be thrilled to take a two-game lead back to Florida, especially since it came into this series with one day off after a seven-game series against Pittsburgh.

“Oh yeah, we need rest,” Boucher said. “Rest is a weapon. It’s something we need now. It’s a weapon. We [the coaching staff] told the players we don’t want to see them until Tuesday. It’s been very, very tough for us. I’ll be honest. The guys gave everything they had today. It is about time we scored that goal. I don’t think we could have gone on [for] another period like that.”

Yzerman, whose one year of work in Tampa Bay has already earned him a nomination for general manager of the year, says it’s not again a full-blown rivalry — not yet. But it’s getting closer.

“It’s good for the league,” Yzerman said. “It’s a little premature to say there’s a rivalry. They’ve dominated the division for a number of years. They’re a tremendous team, a really talented team. I’m curious to see how we do, if we can keep up with them. We’ll see. You play within the division, over time you can play some good playoff series, then you get a good rivalry and that would be great for our division and great for our organization, frankly.”

It could be less than great for the Caps’ organization, frankly, if the team doesn’t solve its power-play issues, because the Lightning’s penalty kill is extraordinary. It has yet to allow a power-play goal on the road during these playoffs.

The Caps were 0 for 5 on the power play in Game 1 and at times looked positively inept despite the man advantage. Play improved somewhat in Game 2, and the Caps even had a few very good chances, but they still failed to score.

“In the long run, it feels like it’s going to hurt us,” said Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman. “You can’t keep taking this many penalties. They put pucks on the net and Rolie had to make a couple of key saves for us.”

Ah, yes, Rolie. The Caps’ game plan in the first round — to pepper Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist with shots until he surrendered — has yet to work against Roloson. The Lightning has been outshot in all nine of its playoff games — including 37-23 Sunday night — and has won six of those. Quantity clearly isn’t going to get it done this time.

“The most important penalty killer is your goaltender, so that’s part of it,” said Boucher. “We also got lucky — that’s another part of it. . . . Goaltender and luck in there had a lot to do with it today.”

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