There are many reasons the Washington Capitals should be wary of the Tampa Bay Lightning. There’s goal-scoring phenom Steven Stamkos, veterans Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, both of whom have their name inscribed on the Stanley Cup, and their infinitely prepared coach, Guy Boucher.
The biggest reason, though, is a player who didn’t even start the season on the Bolts’ roster: Dwayne Roloson.
It could be argued that the goalie with the gray playoff beard was the MVP of the first round, yielding only four goals over the final three games as the Lightning rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit against the Penguins. Roloson punctuated his quarterfinal heroics Wednesday in Pittsburgh, turning aside all 36 shots for a series-clinching, 1-0 victory to show that, even at 41 years old, he has a penchant for coming up huge under the most intense pressure.
With the win, Roloson became the oldest NHL goalie to earn a shutout in a Game 7. It also solidified his status as a “hot goalie” — the two scariest words this time of year.
When reminded on Thursday morning that Roloson had improved to 6-0 in his career when facing elimination, Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau rolled his eyes before firing back, “I know exactly what he is.”
“One of the things about him — not to pump up his tires — is he’s really good under pressure,” added Boudreau, who recalled getting swept by Roloson in a minor league playoff series in 1999. “Very much like [Boston’s] Tim Thomas, he’s a competitive, competitive guy. He stops the puck when he has to.”
Before beating the Penguins, the highlight of Roloson’s career had come in spring 2006, when, after being acquired by Edmonton at the trade deadline, he carried the eighth-seeded Oilers to the Stanley Cup finals. At one point, Roloson won seven consecutive contests and was an early front-runner for the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the playoffs. But a sprained knee suffered in Game 1 sidelined him for the rest of the finals, and the Oilers eventually succumbed to the Carolina Hurricanes six games later.
This postseason, Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman is asking Roloson to do it one more time. Yzerman dealt a prospect to the New York Islanders on Jan. 1 for Roloson in an attempt to shore up the Lightning’s shaky goalie situation.
Washington had thumped Tampa Bay, 6-3 and 6-0, in the teams’ first two meetings of the season. Goals, however, became much more scarce after Roloson’s arrival. He shut out the Capitals, 1-0, in his first game with the Lightning, then a week later beat them again, 3-0. In all, Roloson posted a record of 2-2-1, a minuscule 1.38 goals against average, a scintillating .953 save percentage and two shutouts against the Capitals (including one start as an Islander) this season. Among the teams he faced at least four times, those were his best numbers.
On the eve of Game 1, the Capitals did their best to sound unconcerned.
“He’s a good goalie,” Brooks Laich said. “But everything in the regular season, you throw that out the window. Regular season is gone.
“It’s a new series. The plan doesn’t change depending on the goalie you’re playing. It’s shots and traffic, try to take his eyes away and get as many pucks there as you can.”
It’s no secret that net presence is critical to scoring goals in the playoffs. But, as many of the Capitals pointed out, Roloson is especially susceptible to traffic because of his style of play and temperament. Unlike the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, Roloson does not rely on impeccable technique and angles to stop shots. He’s a battler who relies on instinct and reflexes, which, occasionally, causes him to overcommit and “bite” on fakes. He also strays from the cage to play the puck, sometimes with disastrous results.
Roloson can also be a hothead. For proof of that, one doesn’t need to look further than the Capitals’ visit to Tampa on Feb. 4. Grinder Matt Hendricks bumped Roloson, who had shut out the Capitals in the teams’ previous two meetings, to “get him off his game.”
It worked. Roloson responded with three punches to the back of Hendricks’s helmet with his catching glove. The Capitals scored the next three goals and pulled away for a 5-2 victory. It marked the only time this season that they managed to score more than two goals on Roloson.
“He’s been playing good and I heard he’s really good in elimination games,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “That’s great. But we’ve got to try to get in his head as early as we can.”
Hendricks added: “I don’t know if you need to hit him or anything physical. But you have to get in front of him, make his job difficult, make it tough for him to see pucks, a lot of traffic, the things that make goalies frustrated.”
There’s another reason to make Roloson work hard: He’s coming off a physically and mentally draining series and had just one day to recover. If the Capitals make Games 1 and 2 taxing on him, it will force Boucher to decide whether to start him on back-to-back nights in Games 3 and 4 or turn to backup Mike Smith, who has never made a postseason start in the NHL and has started only five games since late December. Not to mention the fact that Roloson was 0-2 when starting on consecutive nights for the Lightning, yielding a total of 10 goals and getting pulled once.
Roloson isn’t the biggest name in the Tampa Bay dressing room. In fact, he doesn’t even have the better goals against average of the starting goalies in this series. That belongs to Capitals rookie Michal Neuvirth, who surrendered a stingy 1.38 against the Rangers in the first round.
Still, there’s something reminiscent about what Roloson has done this month and the run he made with the Oilers five years ago. The Capitals’ chief objective will be to make that first-round performance a fleeting reminiscence, rather than the beginning of a crowning achievement.