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Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Second-round preview: Caps-Lightning

By Scott Burnside

You're going to hear a lot about demons being exorcised as the second round of these playoffs starts. Vancouver hopes it's gone all William Peter Blatty on the Chicago Blackhawks. The Nashville Predators did some hocus pocus on Anaheim in getting out of the first round for the first time in franchise history, and the Washington Capitals shook off the pesky New York Rangers in five games to erase the stink of last year's first-round loss to eighth-seeded Montreal.

But for a team such as Washington, erasing demons doesn't just mean beating the worst team of the 16 to qualify for the postseason tournament. For the Caps, they need to keep winning, and that's going to be a significantly more difficult challenge against a Tampa Bay Lightning team that erased a 3-1 series deficit against Pittsburgh to advance to the second round for the first time since it won the Cup in 2004.

The Caps showed a lot of resilience in the first round, going 2-1 when they gave up the first goal. They also showed they can win it either close to the vest or opening it up. And they erased a 3-0 deficit against the Rangers in Game 4 to win in overtime.

The Bolts, meanwhile, overcame early series jitters against a tough Pittsburgh team to come up with a big 1-0 road win in Game 7 that looked very Washington-like in its efficiency. Hmm. Could get interesting.

1. Quick and painless: We remember talking to Alex Ovechkin before the start of training camp, and he lamented not only his team's inability to beat Montreal (although blowing a 3-1 series lead against the eighth seed wasn't a particularly fond memory), but also the Caps' inability to close out teams in an expeditious fashion. Prior to this postseason, the Caps had played in four straight seven-game playoff series. They were 1-3 in those series, and Ovechkin's point was you can't play to the max all the time and expect to go on a long run. Fair point. Now we'll see whether shutting down the Rangers in five games actually helps, especially given that the Caps' opponents will be coming off a seven-game set in which they had to win three in a row, two of those on the road.

2. Speaking of which: So, what's the emotional state of the Lightning, having expended considerable energy and emotion in upending the Penguins? Well, with all due respect to Pittsburgh, which managed to score just four times in the last three games of this series, Tampa Bay wasn't overly taxed. That's what happens when you're playing a team missing its biggest offensive weapons in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. In some ways, that should put the Lightning in good stead moving on to the second round. They outscored the Penguins 13-4 in the final three games of the series and did not allow a power-play goal in the final three games. They have showed they can play a tight, shutdown kind of game, but they also can open it up. Gee, that sounds an awful lot like the Capitals.

3. Best on best? Although we didn't like Ovechkin's game at points in the middle of the Caps' first-round series against New York, he led the team with six points in five games. Alexander Semin was a dynamo in Game 1 and not so much in Games 2 through 4 but ended up with three goals and an assist.

Perhaps the most intriguing player moving forward for the Caps is defenseman Mike Green, who was solid in returning to action after a concussion. After a couple of disappointing playoff seasons, Green looked more comfortable in his skin, was handling the puck with greater ease, and collected five points on a goal and four assists. If he continues to get his stride back, he will make the Caps even harder to dislodge from the playoffs.

4. Grey is good: If experience counts for anything, the Lightning should hold an advantage between the pipes, given the stellar work of 41-year-old netminder Dwayne Roloson. He held the Pens to four goals in the final three games of the series, including a 36-save performance in Game 7. Of course, that's what the Rangers thought with Henrik Lundqvist, and it didn't really turn out that way, did it?

Rookie Michal Neuvirth was cucumber-cool in his first NHL playoff action, turning in a sterling 1.38 goals-against average and .946 save percentage, which put him at the top of the heap among playoff netminders heading into the second round. Could he go off the rails? Maybe, but something tells us he's not going there, and if he does, he'll bounce back. Worth noting was Neuvirth's play in overtime, as the Caps won both overtime games with the Rangers.

Roloson, meanwhile, shook off a couple of uneven performances to deliver the goods when he needed. Now we'll see how he does with a full offensive arsenal.

5. Sand factor: The Rangers looked to stack up favorably against Washington before Ryan Callahan went down with injury, leaving too much weight on Brandon Dubinsky. The Lightning are the opposite, having gotten important, agitating, front-of-the net figures Steve Downie and Ryan Malone back just before the playoffs. Downie had a terrific second half of the series against Pittsburgh with six points in the final three games, including the game winner in Game 6. Malone, the former Penguin, had a couple of points in Game 6 and gave Tampa coach Guy Boucher another tool up front. The Caps, meanwhile, are hoping to have gritty forward Mike Knuble return from a suspected hand injury at some point in this round. His presence would help balance the Lightning's impressive sand factor.

• Lightning power play versus Capitals penalty kill: The Caps allowed just one power-play goal on 20 opportunities in five games against the Rangers. Can the Lightning dent that penalty-killing unit, one that finished second during the regular season? The Lightning scored eight times with the man advantage in the first round, but those goals were concentrated in three games. If the Lightning can't bring that production and, more importantly, spread it around, the challenge of knocking off the top seed in the conference becomes even greater.

• Washington: Alexander Semin remains one of the most curious players in the NHL. We joked in the press box in Game 1 when the game went to overtime that Semin would pot the winner because, well, he'd be among the least likely guys to deliver the goods. He did, of course, ripping home a Jason Arnott pass to give the Caps an early series lead. But he can take prolonged vacations in the middle of games and series, as he did against the Rangers, and his production is going to be crucial to the Caps' chances against the Lightning and beyond, if there is a beyond.

• Tampa Bay: Martin St. Louis is no zero. The former Hart trophy winner paced the Bolts with three power-play goals and eight points in the first round. He is the engine that drives this team. As the pressure grows on Ovechkin to lead his team to the promised land, St. Louis is the poster boy for leadership.

•  This should be a great tilt. But have to go with the Caps to advance to their first conference final since 1998. Washington in 6.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for