The Capitals outshot the Lightning, 28-24, in Game 1 of the conference semifinals at Verizon Center. They outhit their guests, 28-19, and had the upper hand on faceoffs, too, winning 54 percent of them.
But they were undone Friday by the one statistical category that often separates winners from losers each spring: special teams. The Bolts converted one of their four power-play opportunities, while the Capitals failed on five opportunities in a 4-2 defeat that Tampa Bay sealed with an empty-netter.
The Alex Ovechkin-dominated unit might deserve a pass had it been just one bad performance. But it has been a season-long struggle, one made all the more confounding by the fact that it possesses one of the most talented rosters in the NHL and, only 13 months ago, led the NHL at 25.2 percent. Even after struggling for the first five months this season, the power play finished the regular season strong, connecting at a 26.6 percent clip over the final 15 contests.
On Friday, though, it was disjointed, lethargic and, at times, just plain lazy, mustering five shots on goal while surrendering five short-handed shots against.
The power play also committed three giveaways, was whistled for offsides three times. Ovechkin did not record a single shot on net with the man advantage, despite 7 minutes 3 seconds of ice time. Two power plays, in fact, resulted in no shots at all.
But statistics weren’t the most damning indictment of the power play’s effort. That came during Coach Bruce Boudreau’s postgame news conference.
“We weren’t getting to any loose pucks, once there was a shot,” he snapped. “And we weren’t shooting the puck, which is what we were talking about. We were talking about getting the puck to the net, crash the net and simplify the game.”
Asked to expound on his comments after Saturday’s sparsely attended optional practice, Boudreau said of the need to work harder: “Like you guys, I watch TV. And every time you listen to a press conference of a coach who loses, he says: ‘We didn’t win the battles, we didn’t get the loose pucks. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to be successful.’
“I thought they got more than we did last night,” he added. “It’s the only way you get success. The natural instinct is we’re a man up, so it’s a goal-scoring opportunity. The whole thing of it is, if the penalty killing works harder than the power play, that usually nullifies the man advantage.”
The Capitals’ skilled players, no doubt, were outhustled by Tampa Bay’s penalty killers. The Lightning’s penalty kill ranks second in the playoffs with a 97.5 percent effectiveness rate, having extinguished of 39 of 40 short-handed situations dating to its first-round series against Pittsburgh. But the Lightning received plenty of help from its opponent in Game 1.
Washington received the break it so desperately needed with 5:58 to play — or so it seemed. With his team trailing 3-2, Lightning winger Teddy Purcell was sent to the penalty box for hooking defenseman Scott Hannan on a touch-up. Instead, the Capitals put on a clinic on how not to execute a power play.
The unit set up in the Lightning zone on three occasions. The first time, the Capitals made eight — yes, eight — passes along the perimeter before Nicklas Backstrom delivered a low-percentage shot to Dwayne Roloson’s chest protector with little traffic in front. Later on the same advantage, Washington was whistled for a pair of offsides, one on Alexander Semin and the other on Jason Arnott. After the first one, Boudreau could be seen on the bench grimacing while stroking his cheek.
“On the two broken plays, guys were a little anxious to get on the puck,” Boudreau said. “When you’re out of sync, you’re out of sync, and these things happen.”
Ovechkin also had a breakout pass picked off at center ice during the late-game advantage. Moments later, Semin fired the second shot from long range, again with Roloson getting a clear look at it.
“We all knew what we have to do on the power play,” Ovechkin said. “But on the last power play we tried to do too much because it was 3-2 and there were five minutes, six minutes left in the game.”
So the final, disjointed power play came and went with the Capitals’ registering two shots on net, virtually no sustained pressure and not a single rebound chance.
“They did a good job, no question, but we have to get more shots,” said Arnott, who didn’t record a shot on the power play. “We were trying to be too fancy and not getting pucks to the net and not having guys around the net. They did a good job of keeping us on the perimeter, but we have to do a better job of attacking.”
If the Capitals need a reminder of how to score on the power play, they need not look further than Steven Stamkos’s winner. Tampa Bay defenseman Eric Brewer skated the puck down to the goal line and fired a tight angle shot at the Capitals’ net, just hoping to create a rebound opportunity.
You know what? It worked. Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth couldn’t control the rebound, and Stamkos, parked at the side of the blue paint, flipped it into the net.
Brewer made the simple play. Stamkos ventured into a high traffic area. And, like that, Tampa Bay stole home ice advantage.
“That’s usually how goals go in,” Arnott said of the Lightning’s power-play strike. “Get a shot on net, the goalie makes a save and there are players there to bang in rebounds.”
Sounds straightforward enough, doesn’t it? The Capitals had better hope Arnott wasn’t the only player who took note of it.