On Friday, I wrote a frank memo to Caps coach Bruce Boudreau and captain Alex Ovechkin that could be distilled into this piece of advice: forget the regular season.
Gentlemen, consider this an addendum.
No, I haven’t radically changed my thinking on the relative importance of the regular season, where the Caps have shone in recent years, vs. the playoffs, where they’ve bombed.
However, tonight’s game against visiting Tampa Bay isn’t just one of 82 contests of the seemingly endless regular season. It’s the first meeting of the Southeast Division rivals since the Lightning stunned the Caps with a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference semifinals back in May.
So tonight’s game at Verizon Center is about payback and sending a message. Ovechkin and the Caps have to let scorers Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, venerable goalie Dwayne Roloson and the rest of the Lightning know that what happened last spring isn’t going to be repeated this season.
And if tonight’s matchup with Tampa Bay isn’t enough of a statement game for the first week of Washington’s season, on Thursday the Caps visit the Pittsburgh Penguins, their archrivals for two decades.
It would be a shock if Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby makes his comeback from the concussion that ended his 2010-11 season midway through, but Pittsburgh is still loaded with talent and, along with Washington, defending Stanley Cup champion Boston and perhaps Tampa Bay, looms as a favorite to win the East.
Beating Ottawa and Florida during the next 10 days would be all well and good, but the games against the Lightning and the Penguins figure to mean much more come playoff time.
As for this past Saturday’s opener against Carolina, it’s nice that the Caps won 4-3 in overtime, especially on a clutch goal by defenseman Mike Green, who had such a disappointing 2010-11 season. However, the hosts lost a pair of leads, the second one in the final two minutes of regulation. Those kind of chokes weren’t supposed to happen with the newfound grit that came with the summer additions of veterans Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik and Joel Ward.
What’s worse is that there were rumblings that veteran Tomas Vokoun, signed to add some gravitas in goal, was none too pleased that Boudreau gave holdover youngster Michal Neuvirth the opening night assignment.
All these concerns could disappear in the short-term with a big performance by Vokoun and his teammates against the Lightning tonight. However, as I said last Friday, what really matters for the Caps won’t be revealed for at least six months.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.