Friday, April 29, 2011, 9:51 p.m.
Updated at 11:49 p.m.
By Mark ZuckermanStaff WriterCSNwashington.com
Momentum is a tenuous concept in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the kind of thing that swings dramatically from one side of the ice to the other over the course of a series, and often during one game.
The Capitals seemingly had momentum on their side for much of the first two periods Friday night at Verizon Center. If nothing else, they had Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson flustered and on the ropes in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
But momentum only plays in your favor when you actually take advantage of it and knock out a wounded opponent. And as the Caps found out as the night wore on, a failure to take advantage can lead to a major momentum swing in the other direction.
Unable to take down Tampa Bay when they had the chance, the Capitals instead gave up two late goals in the second period and then were stymied over the final 20 minutes of what would become a demoralizing, 4-2 loss.
Just like that, the East's No. 1 seed is facing an early deficit to its fifth-seeded division rivals in this series, having lost home-ice advantage in the process.
"I thought the momentum changed when we stopped playing the way we wanted to," defenseman Scott Hannan said. "We started turning the puck over, which doesn't play into our hands very well. The last five minutes of the second, we just got away from our gameplan. And that's playoff hockey. You get away from it for a bit, two quick goals and all of a sudden you're chasing."
Having enjoyed five days off after dispatching the Rangers in the first round, the Capitals were supposed to be the fresher team. Instead, a Lightning club that only wrapped up its first-round triumph over the Penguins Wednesday night came out on fire and finished strong.
"They were ready," winger Eric Fehr said. "They came out hard. And I think it took us a little while to get up to speed."
Indeed, Tampa Bay came storming out of the gates, getting a quick goal from winger Sean Bergenheim after the puck came loose underneath Michal Neuvirth. With the Caps on their heels, the Lightning had a couple more chances to add to the lead and quickly outshot their counterparts 7-1.
And then someone flipped a switch and momentum swung back in the Capitals' direction, where it would stay through most of the second period. Taking advantage of a clearly uncomfortable Roloson, they kept firing the puck on net and hoping to punch rebounds past the goalie.
Alexander Semin tallied the tying goal only two minutes after Tampa Bay had taken the initial lead, and Brooks Laich appeared to give Washington a 2-1 lead late in the first period when he put a rebound past Roloson. The crowd went nuts, but replays quickly reveled Laich had kicked the puck in, whiffing with his stick, so the goal was disallowed.
The Caps kept the pressure on Roloson, though, and did take the lead less than two minutes into the second period when Jason Chimera won a battle for the puck and fed a perfect pass to Eric Fehr.
The shots kept coming throughout the period, and chances were plentiful, especially on rebounds. The Capitals, though, couldn't push another one past Roloson, and thus the Lightning remained in this game despite getting overwhelmingly outplayed and despite losing winger Simon Gagne to an apparent head injury caused by a wicked hit from Hannan.
"We had some chances to get up 3-1 or 4-1," Chimera said. "We had some good chances. Those are the chances that have to go in. It kind of buries them if you do that."
It also buries you when you start playing a style of hockey your coach doesn't want to see this time of the year. After spending the last three months focusing on defense and puck control, the Caps decided to revert to the run-and-gun game that defined them in previous seasons (and resulted in three straight playoff failures).
"We can't play river hockey," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "This wasn't the way we play. It was reverting back to an older day."
And the Lightning made them pay for it with a pair of goals in the final four minutes of the second period.
It began when Steve Downie's backhanded pass toward the crease was inadvertently tipped in by Hannan, tying the game 2-2. Two minutes later, Chimera was whistled for a roughing penalty when he appeared to elbow Pavel Kubina into the glass. Tampa Bay then converted on the power play, with Steven Stamkos beating Neuvirth on a rebound to give his team the lead and silence the Verizon Center crowd heading into the final period.
"It's tough, definitely, to get scored on in the last two minutes of the period," Fehr said. "It was a tough penalty, a good hit, I thought. But we've got to bounce back from those and play a little better in the third."
The Capitals did not play better in the final period. Unable to push the puck into the offensive zone thanks to Tampa Bay's stout trap, they managed only five shots at the 41-year-old Roloson, who regained his composure after the shaky start.
And when Domonic Moore scored an empty-netter with 40 seconds remaining, any hope of a comeback was dashed and a dejected Caps squad skated back to their locker room trying to figure out how to get momentum back in their favor before the puck drops again Sunday evening.
"We didn't play our game," winger Alex Ovechkin said. "We played, I think, too cute. ... It's over, and we have to prepare for the next game."
Contact Mark Zuckerman at email@example.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.