Friday, April 28, 2011, 11:54 p.m.
By Chase Hughes
After waiting nearly a week to find out their second-round opponent, the Capitals knew they faced the risk of coming out flat in their first game back. They also realized the Tampa Bay Lightning could carry over some momentum from their Game 7 win over the Penguins on Tuesday.
Coach Bruce Boudreau said this week at practice that whatever the result, the media would cite the layoff as its reason.
"If we're successful, you guys will say they're tired," Boudreau said on Thursday. "If we're not, for the most part we're rusty."
After an admittedly sluggish start, the Capitals proved to be the latter. Tampa Bay came out faster in the first, was the clear aggressor early on and, before the Capitals could blink, struck first with Sean Bergenheim's goal poked through the legs of Michal Neuvirth.
Capitals forward Eric Fehr said the extended break may have played a role.
"I think that's the reason they had jump. They were feeling the energy from their Game 7 win. Maybe we came out a little bit flat-footed in the first period, he said.
"It's just tough to practice at a playoff pace. They were ready. They came out hard. And I think it took us a little while to get up to speed."
Washington recouped quickly and tied the game less than two minutes later off Alexander Semin's wrist shot. The Caps then seized the lead early in the second with Eric Fehr's put-in, set up by Jason Chimera seconds after a faceoff.
But Tampa Bay responded nearly 15 minutes later with a fortunate bounce off Scott Hannans stick, as Lightning forward Steve Downie was credited with the goal. It was then the game turned, the energy evaporated from the building and the Capitals strayed from their game.
We were in control of the game until the Downie goal. That gave them life, Boudreau said.
But we can't play river hockey. This wasn't the way we play. It was reverting back to an older day."
In the second period, the Capitals were dealt another bump in the road, as workhouse defenseman John Carlson was sidelined with an apparent lower-body injury. Carlson hurt his leg in the second period and appeared for just one shift in the third. His absence left Washington with only five defensemen for much of the final stretch, and Tampa took advantage.
During the final minute of the second period, Lightning All-Star Steven Stamkos scored with a backhanded shot on the power play. Carlson gave it a go in the third, but lasted just one shift before leaving the game for good.
The health of Washington blue-liners will continue to be a storyline in this postseason. Boudreau said Carlson is day-to day, but that forces the Capitals to rely even more on Mike Green, who returned during the teams first-round series after missing 26 of the last 28 regular-season games with a concussion. Add that to the uncertainty of Dennis Widemans leg injury, and the Capitals are stuck with a shaky defensive unit, not the problem of choice when facing the high-octane Lightning attack.
Game 2 is on Sunday, and the Capitals will have a day to reassess. They will then travel to Tampa for a back-to-back games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Wednesday, perhaps the ideal scenario for a team tired of so many days off.