To put the entire weight of salvaging the season on the Washington Capitals' premier offensive players would be unfair. But with the team facing elimination in Game 6 of its first-round series with Tampa Bay today at MCI Center, the need for their stars to shine never has been greater.
For all of the money spent to bolster the attack, Washington still has mustered only two goals in its last two games and five goals over three straight losses to the Lightning, a familiar refrain for this franchise in the postseason. Untimely defensive lapses recently have stung the Capitals, but the Lightning has scored only 12 goals in the series and never more than three in regulation of any one game, hardly insurmountable totals.
Scoring was no problem for Washington in the first two games, both wins, with Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang and Sergei Gonchar leading the attack, but those players lately have been unable to produce against Tampa Bay's stingy defense, leaving the team in a must-win situation.
The Lightning's top forwards -- Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Vaclav Prospal -- were invisible in the opening two games but have scored all nine of their team's goals in its three wins. Jagr, Lang and Gonchar in particular have been unable to find open ice in those games and a return to their normal production might be enough to get the Capitals back in the series.
"That's definitely part of the equation," Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy said. "I think both teams' so-called stars have done good things. Look at [Peter] Bondra and Jagr, they've played hard for us. Michael Nylander -- whether or not you want to classify him as a star -- he's done really good things, and Robert Lang in the first game was the difference, and obviously we'd like to see more of that from all four of them.
"But we can't criticize them. What we said to our guys is: We played well, but maybe we need to be better than well to beat this team the way things are going. A little more second effort, a little more desperation and we're right there. We're a lot like Tampa was after the first two games; we need something good to happen to our hockey club early [in Game 6]. . . . And you hope your big-play guys are the guys who make that difference and go out and make a break for us."
Cassidy reconstructed his top two lines at yesterday's practice to aid that cause. Jagr no longer is skating with Nylander and Kip Miller; the coaches replaced finesse with bulk in the form of Dainius Zubrus and Lang to combat Tampa Bay's physical defensive pairing of Pavel Kubina and Jassen Cullimore, who take each shift against Jagr. Hard-shooting winger Sergei Berezin, who was excellent after being acquired at the trade deadline when other forwards were hurt but who has not played much in this series, will return to a prominent role on the second line with Bondra and Nylander.
Tampa Bay Coach John Tortorella united Lecavalier, St. Louis and Prospal before Game 3 and his team has not lost since. Cassidy hopes his adjustments spark new life as well.
"We're just trying to find combinations we think will work the best," Cassidy said. "Maybe the ones that are there today will represent a little different challenge for [Tampa Bay]."
Washington's tactics also will change for this vital game. The team's defense-oriented five-man unit -- forwards Jeff Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk and Mike Grier and defensemen Brendan Witt and Calle Johansson -- struggled against Lecavalier's line, and Cassidy plans to shun that matchup today, instead putting Jagr's line against them, hoping to force Lecavalier and his defensively suspect linemates to play more in their own zone and create scoring chances from there.
"What turned it around for Tampa is they put three good players together who all scored goals, and we were not able to shut down one line," Jagr said.
"At some point you say, 'Let's try a different angle,' " Cassidy said. "I think we're at that point now where it's do or die."
Jagr seemed primed for a huge series after scoring two goals and two assists in Game 2, but he has a total of three assists in the other four games. Lang scored twice in Game 1 but has just one assist since. Gonchar, who has more goals than any NHL defenseman over the last five seasons, has no goals and just eight shots on goal in the series.
The Capitals are in dire need of offensive balance as well. Halpern's line has scored one goal -- Grier's empty-netter in Game 3 -- and Halpern and Konowalchuk do not have a point in the series. Witt is the only defenseman to score for Washington and the team has yet to unearth the kind of unexpected playoff hero who can alter the momentum of a series.
Of course, getting a huge game from its top-line talent might erase the need for that.
"I think it's going to come down to our best players against their best players," Gonchar said. "They found three guys who can score goals for them, and in the last few games we didn't have that."