Bolts still arguing Caps are better team
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- If the Tampa Bay Lightning decide to get T-shirts made this postseason, the slogan will be simple: "We're Not Worthy."
And on the back: "Seriously, We're Not Worthy."
Even in the wake of a surprising 4-2 victory over the Washington Capitals on Friday night to open their Eastern Conference semifinal series, coach Guy Boucher immediately set about outlining the many reasons he didn't expect to win this game and doesn't really expect to have much success moving forward with Game 2 on Sunday night.
"Obviously the first round has given us some tools to be calmer under pressure. But having said that, that team we're playing is quite a hockey machine. At the ice level, I can tell you they're looking outstanding out there. It was surprising that we came in today and won one of the two. I'll be honest; we weren't expecting that," Boucher said.
For sure, there is a lot of coach-speak mumbo jumbo going on with how the Lightning have chosen to portray themselves at the outset of this series.
This "holy cow, are these Capitals ever good and how will we ever stay close" cloak seems to fit the Lightning well, even if the Southeast Division rivals are actually fairly similar, given the offensive tools at their disposal and their ability to play a variety of styles.
"We're still very down to earth about this win because they're a more powerful team than us, so at some time or another, it's bound to show," Boucher said.
For long stretches in Game 1 on Friday night, the Capitals looked like a team that was on the verge of blowing this one open. They gave up an early goal to playoff hero Sean Bergenheim, who scored the only goal for the Lightning in their Game 7 first-round victory over Pittsburgh, then took it to the Lightning for the next 30 to 35 minutes of the game.
But the Lightning did not break, and the Capitals could not break them.
The Lightning, after denying 34 of 35 Pittsburgh power plays in the first round, shut down the Caps on all five of their opportunities in Game 1.
Still, if you were looking for jubilation in the Lightning locker room, you'd come to the wrong place.
Even in discussing the team's excellent penalty killing, Boucher was expecting bad things to happen to his team because, did we mention, the Lightning coach thinks the Capitals are very good.
"Well, there's always the luck element in there. Sometimes you plan stuff and they do other stuff that works, so credit to the players. I think all around our players put a lot of work into the details. They really do. They spend a lot of time watching video by themselves or by little groups on top of what we make them watch. They've figured out a lot of small details that make you successful," Boucher said.
"But when you look at their power play, they still had a lot of time possession in our zone. They made great plays. They could have scored some goals. So we're not kidding ourselves. They're going to score some goals on the power play in this series for sure. I would be shocked that the next game if they don't score one," Boucher said.
On Friday, the Bolts' playoff learning curve included a couple of lucky bounces.
After Washington's Eric Fehr had given the Caps a 2-1 lead early in the second period, it was hard-working Steve Downie who saw his harmless-looking shot deflect off defenseman Scott Hannan's stick and over Washington netminder Michal Neuvirth to tie the game with less than four minutes to go in the period. After Jason Chimera was called for riding Pavel Kubina hard into the end boards, Steven Stamkos chipped home the eventual winner on the power play.
"I don't know if it's easier; the games are more and more important," said Stamkos, who scored in just one of seven games in the first round.
"It seems like we're starting to figure out everyone's roles on the team," he said. "We're paying attention to the details; that's the biggest difference."
For the Capitals, the loss was disappointing on a number of fronts, not the least of which was the fact that they were in a position to take control of the game but didn't. After a close-checking series against the New York Rangers in which scoring chances were at a premium, Game 1 against Tampa looked a lot more like an earlier version of the free-wheeling Capitals.
It wasn't a sight that was particularly palatable for Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, who has worked hard to design a game plan that is more suited to the playoffs.
"I thought the game plan we'd gotten away from, but I thought we were in control of the game until the Downie goal and that gave them life," Boudreau said.
"But you can't play river hockey. I'm looking, and this wasn't the way we play. It was reverting back to an older day."
As for being lucky, Boudreau wasn't buying into that angle.
"I'm a firm believer that in the end you get what you deserve," Boudreau said.
On the Downie goal, "he did a good job of being where he should be," the coach said.
And in the end, whether they're worthy or not, maybe the Lightning got exactly what they deserved, too.
The Lightning began these playoffs looking like a team unused to being in the postseason, which makes sense given that they had not been invited to the playoff dance since 2007 and hadn't won a playoff round since 2004, when they won their first and only Stanley Cup.
But the evolution from, as Boucher described it, a team full of players playing like deer caught in headlights to a confident, patient squad has been dramatic.
Friday's win was the fourth in a row for the Lightning, who trailed Pittsburgh 3-1 in the first round. They now are 4-1 on the road. Not that anyone in that Lightning room is suggesting anything of note has been accomplished yet.
"Well, I don't know. Things can change pretty quickly so I wouldn't write the book on it yet. But that's your job," Dominic Moore told us with a grin after Friday's game.
A year ago, Moore was riding the playoff wave in Montreal as the Canadiens knocked off these Caps and then the Penguins before falling in the conference final. He understands the dynamics that go into a team getting on a roll, even if no one is talking "roll" on the Lightning side of things.
"At the same time, we have guys that every game is another experience that adds to their base that they can build on. I think like any team going through the playoffs, the idea is to continue to get better whether you have experience or not," said Moore, who scored an empty-net goal to round out the scoring in the final minute of the game.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.