TAMPA — The mind tends to race when all we are provided with is one result and 48 hours to chew on it. Man, there was just so much to like about that opening game of the Eastern Conference finals for the Washington Capitals. Replicate the effort and execution that went into that 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and couldn’t this series be over in four games? Okay, five. No more than that. Right?
There’s a trick in how to handle this, and it applies both to the Capitals and their fan base, which can envision welcoming its team home to Capital One Arena on Tuesday night staked to a dominant, 2-0 lead in the series. The trick is this: How can Game 1 be simultaneously meaningful and irrelevant? Because when it comes to the rest of this quest, it must be.
“I can’t imagine we’re going to see the same Tampa team we saw [Friday] for the rest of this series,” veteran forward T.J. Oshie said.
That’s a good place to start, and solid reasoning with which to move forward. The Tampa Bay team that posted more wins than any other in the NHL during the regular season was — how to put this? — dreadful for the first 40 minutes Friday. Putrid. And that’s not what the Lightning is.
The Capitals know the Lightning lost the first game of its second-round series against the Boston Bruins, 6-2, on home ice. The Lightning knows that, too. What happened next? Tampa Bay ripped off four straight wins, allowing all of two five-on-five goals the rest of the way. The Lightning is capable of dominating, and it dominated.
The Capitals, too, can look within and consider how they handled their own disappointing series openers just this spring. It may seem like a distant memory that they lost the first two games of their opening series to the Columbus Blue Jackets — at home. It’s just a little bump on the road that they allowed three goals in a five-minute span to Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second-round opener — also at home — in a disheartening, 3-2 loss.
What the Caps know is how they responded in those situations. And so they have to expect a similar response from Tampa Bay, because Tampa Bay didn’t win 54 regular season games by accident, because Tampa Bay didn’t start these playoffs with two five-game series relying on luck.
“They’re going to have some desperation in their game,” Washington Coach Barry Trotz said Saturday.
So prepare for that desperation — and match it.
Now, this isn’t at all to splash water all over the Capitals’ performance and position right now. Both are admirable.
But game-to-game results in the Stanley Cup playoffs are an oddly fickle entity. This is a league in which Pittsburgh demolished Philadelphia in the opener of its first-round series, a 7-0 stunner that two days later meant . . . nothing? The Flyers beat the Penguins, 5-1, in Game 2. That defies explanation.
What the Capitals are doing, however, is building something. Step away from their performance in Game 1 — one in which they out-chanced, outworked, outscored and out-hustled the Lightning, checking whatever box was offered — and look at the past month. They are 6-1 on the road this postseason, which is something. Since the two losses to the Blue Jackets that opened the playoffs, they have had, what, one disappointing performance? That would have been Game 1 against Pittsburgh, and even that could be hung on five lousy minutes in an otherwise solid game. Their loss in the fourth game of that series was normal, not alarming.
They are, then, balancing how to handle this situation mentally. They can’t assume that what happened in Game 1 will extend to Sunday night’s Game 2. But they also must acknowledge, embrace and take advantage of the confidence they have built in winning nine of their past 11 games.
“Obviously, it doesn’t matter what we did in Game 1 when it comes to Game 2,” center Jay Beagle said. “But there’s also momentum. I think we carried that over from the Pitt series into that first period [Friday], and I think that’s our best period of the year.”
Carry it forward, then. But cautiously.
This is the 18th playoff series of the Alex Ovechkin era of Washington hockey. The Capitals’ record in series openers before Friday night: 8-9. Their record in series in which they have won the opener: 3-5. It’s actually better when they drop Game 1 (they’re 5-4 in such series), which is odd and kind of scrambles the brain a bit, so don’t slip into a place where you wish they had failed Friday. They’re up. Enjoy it, and get greedy for more.
“You have to expect that it’s not going to be as easy,” said forward Lars Eller, whose goal on the power play embodied exactly how easy it was — a whiff and broken stick on a slap shot from Ovechkin, a miss from Oshie to try to dump in the rebound, with Eller left standing there as if at the side of the buffet table, with nothing hindering him from hogging all the shrimp cocktail he cared to eat.
That’s not likely to be the case again Sunday night. If it is, Tampa Bay is in serious trouble. What the Caps have at this point is an advantage that means nothing and everything all at once. What matters most is not how they got to this point, but how they handle it going forward. This postseason, the returns from this group on that score are essentially perfect. If that kind of measured, professional response continues, we are looking at one tough out.
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