Can the Washington Capitals make any more deals with the Pittsburgh Penguins? Perhaps Mario Lemieux might consider selling his share of the financially beleaguered Penguins and taking a Michael Jordan season at MCI Center. Maybe Martin Straka, the last of the good young Pens, would want to come to Washington. The pipeline from Pittsburgh to Washington has been flowing full force the last two years, but not until the first two games of these Stanley Cup playoffs have the Capitals realized just how much they have struck it rich. Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang and Kip Miller have all found happiness outside their original habitat.
Game 1 of this best-of-seven series with Tampa Bay -- a series that suddenly is looking like it could be a short series -- belonged to Lang, with his two goals in Thursday's 3-0 victory. Game 2 Saturday was largely Jagr's. The five-time NHL scoring champion tallied two goals and two assists as the Capitals made it two straight over the Lightning, 6-3. And it was Miller who zipped the pass that Jagr took half the length of the ice to the game's first goal. That was a morale-builder for the Capitals, just about a game-breaker less than five minutes into the game.
He was unstoppable, cutting to the goal.
"I used to play like that when I was 18 years old, when I had speed," Jagr said. "That's what I'm always looking for. When I have it, I am going to go for it."
And so with thanks to the former Penguins, the Capitals find themselves with home games coming up Tuesday and Wednesday and an opportunity to sweep a best-of-seven series for the first time in franchise history.
This week's success has been in the making for some time. Before the season, the Capitals added free agents Lang and Miller and reintroduced them to Jagr, who had been obtained in a blockbuster trade in 2001.
Add them to such threats as the veteran Peter Bondra, who scored twice Saturday and has an assist in each of the first two playoff games; the November addition Michael Nylander, two goals in two games plus an assist; Dainius Zubrus, an assist in each game, and offensive-mined defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who has three assists in two games, and it's fairly easy to understand the plight of the inexperienced Lightning.
"They don't have just Jagr," Lightning Coach John Tortorella said this week. "They have a lot of guys who can score. Gonchar may be the scariest of them all."
It's a scary group, all right, especially when they are bearing down on a bunch of youngsters who, for the most part, have never been to the postseason. Jagr and Bondra, on their separate lines and joined on the power play, have outplayed the Lightning forwards overwhelmingly, and proved impossible for the Lightning defenders to stop. "They mean headaches for the other team," Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy said in understatement. "When those guys are scoring on different lines, and we roll [Jeff] Halpern's line up there that can protect the puck and check anybody, then we're dangerous, awfully dangerous."
They have forced the Lightning into playing tentatively and making silly errors that reflect inexperience. Out on the ice at practice Friday at St. Pete Times Forum, Tortorella lectured Andre Roy, a young enforcer, not to make any thoughtless mistakes in Game 2; in a change, the coach was adding him to the active roster, but he also was asking the youngster to think before throwing around his big body. What does Roy do? Seven minutes into the game, he levels Capitals captain Steve Konowalchuk from behind, and nine seconds later Bondra scores on the power play for a 2-0 lead.
Tortorella never again trusted Roy in the game -- and, for that matter, it probably will be a cold day in Tampa before he ever plays him. That one exchange clearly demonstrated the difference between the teams.
The Capitals are the utterly assured veterans; the Lightning is jittery. The Lightning can't sustain its offense. All the Capitals' big shots are on target.
And here's the kicker. In the nets, Olaf Kolzig is outplaying Nikolai Khabibulin. Khabibulin was unbeatable late in the season, going 12-0-4 during his remarkable 16-game unbeaten streak. But in these two playoff games, he has been playing under duress. He had no chance on Bondra's power-play goal, fired into the small space between his left pad and the near post. He had even less chance on Jagr's second goal, stretched flat on his back after making a difficult deflection of a Bondra shot; the rapid follow-up off Jagr's stick sailed above Khabibulin like a Frisbee skimming the grass.
Tampa Bay simply has found no way to cope. The team tried rough stuff to open Game 1, but the Capitals virtually laughed it off. Game 2 brought an adjustment as the Lightning attempted to open up its offense, but once more the Capitals breezed past -- literally, with Jagr on his high-speed breakaway. The Lightning now must play its next two games at MCI Center, where it has lost 11 straight times.
"We're behind the eight ball," said little Martin St. Louis, who has one assist and 20 stitches beneath his eye to show for the two games. "It's going to be tough. We have to find a way to win."
Based on two games, it doesn't seem likely. In those two games, the Capitals have shown off too many veteran scorers, too much coordinated defense and too good a goaltender to expect a letdown.