Build­ing on solid Game 1 would be a win-win

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BARRY SVRLUGA barry.svrluga@wash­post.com

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 out­hus­tled 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. For more by Barry Svrluga, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/svrluga.

Barry Svrluga

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Cap­i­tals’ Matt Niska­nen and Braden Holtby kept J.T. Miller and the Light­ning bot­tled up Fri­day.

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