Multiple times over the course of this season, the Washington Capitals characterized stinging defeats and growing pains from a new style of play as lessons that would help guide them through the playoffs.
But as they head to Tampa Bay for games 3 and 4 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Capitals cannot afford to learn anything else the hard way. Trailing the Lightning two games to none, Washington must capture at least one victory in back-to-back games for a chance to extend its season and advance to the conference finals.
The Lightning still "have to win four," coach Bruce Boudreau said Monday after a sparsely attended, optional practice. "We have been in tough situations this year, and we've bounced back. And we're going in there to win [tonight]. I think the games have been so close that, I mean, it's one move here, one move there. And it's not like we're going to go in there and throw in the towel. We're ready to play."
Small mistakes and bad bounces played a role in Washington's first two losses at home this postseason, but the glaring deficiency against the Lightning has been the power play. The Capitals are 0-for-11 on the man advantage this series and 3-for-27 in seven playoff games this year. They failed to take advantage of far too many opportunities in a pair of one-goal losses to Tampa Bay.
The Lightning, meantime, has cashed in on the power play once in each game, tallies that combine with a nearly perfect penalty-killing record this postseason against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington (45-for-46).
A season ago, it wasn't the defense or ability to prevent goals that unraveled the Capitals' playoff hopes against the Montreal Canadiens, but a power play that evaporated and went 1-for-33. The comparison a season later isn't lost on the players who suffered that first-round loss in seven games.
"When it was said and done, you look back and say, 'Ah, that was what happened, that's what cost us the series,' " Mike Knuble said. "Now we still have the chance to do something about it."
The Capitals have overcome a two-games-to-none series deficit under Boudreau once before. Back in 2009 against the New York Rangers, they dropped the first two games at Verizon Center before rallying to claim the first-round series in seven games. It was the first series victory after trailing two games to none in franchise history.
Some Capitals have more recent comeback experience.
As members of the minor league Hershey Bears last spring, defensemen Karl Alzner, John Carlson and goaltender Michal Neuvirth lost the first two games of the Calder Cup finals at home to the Texas Stars. The Bears then won four straight to clinch their second consecutive American Hockey League title.
"I know that the pressure is going to be a little bit on them," Alzner said of the Lightning. "I know the feeling that — especially when you're up two games and then you go home and you're thinking about sweeping and this and that, and then you lose one game and you know you have to come back to the other team's building. …There's a lot of little things that will be in the backs of their minds."
The Capitals know they can't dawdle if they want to avoid another premature postseason exit. With two games a day apart, they have the ability to alter the course of this series.
"If we can go to Tampa and just win that first one, win [tonight]," Brooks Laich said, "and now maybe we have some momentum and you play back-to-back nights and try to make it tough on them again [tomorrow], you never know what can happen. I said it [Sunday] night: I don't think this series is over, I think it's just beginning."