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Capitals v. Lightning: A defensive battle?

It never used to be this way. Not with these two teams and not in the mostly wide open Southeast Division.

But the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning, for all their high powered offensive players, are playing defensively in a bid to win it all.

For the Capitals, it's been a change in philosophy, with coach Bruce Boudreau shifting to a much more defensive style midseason - one where his team backs off when it has a lead - and getting great results from it.

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For the Lightning, it's been new coach Guy Boucher, who's "1-3-1" system had opponents remarking often after games this season just how difficult and frustrating they were to play.

While Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Steve Stamkos and Marty St. Louis may get a lot of the headlines heading into tonight's Game 1, it could very well be the coaches and their systems that determine who wins the series.

Neither of these teams play at all like they did even a year ago.

Via Japers' Rink, a terrific Capitals blog, here's a good break down of what Boucher will be getting his charges to do:

"... the 1-3-1 has one forechecker marking the puck, two forwards and one defenseman playing three abreast in the neutral zone backed up by one defenseman who hangs back and plays a bit like a sweeper in soccer or a free safety in football. The purpose of the first forechecker is to take away the center of the ice and funnel the play toward the boards. Once the puck goes to the boards, the three skaters at center ice cut off passing and skating lanes and ideally either create a turnover or force a weak dump-in without speed.

"The trap is designed to make it difficult to skate or pass through the center of the ice - the 1-3-1 all but completely takes the center of the ice away if played correctly."

Welcome to the playoffs, where this type of hockey has been winning teams a lot of games the past 15 years.

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For the Lightning, this worked to great effect against the Penguins in that the Lightning were able to stifle an offensively challenged team missing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, limiting them to only 14 goals in the seven-game series.

That may be harder against the Capitals, although they're not exactly the offence-first powerhouse they once were.

Tampa and Washington, meanwhile, had the two highest team save percentages in Round 1 (both with an incredible .946 per cent), which is a testament to the defensive systems they use as much as their goaltenders (Dwayne Roloson and Michal Neuvirth).

(If you look at trap master Jacques Lemaire's teams, for example, they all have terrific save percentages, as the system helps cut down on the quality chances netminders see.)

As for goal scoring, the Lightning finished the regular season tied for eighth in the category this year, but that included having the second-most goals in the league on the power play. Washington was all the way down in 19th in overall scoring, a far cry from when they used to routinely finish among the league leaders.

Among the teams left in the postseason, these two are among the lower scoring ones at even strength. At 5-on-5, the Caps are last in goals scored with only 145 in 82 games. Tampa is tied for second last with San Jose and Nashville with 154.

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Round 2 teams: 5-on-5 goals in 2010-11

  1. Boston 175
  2. Philadelphia 175
  3. Detroit 168
  4. Vancouver 165
  5. Nashville 154
  6. San Jose 154
  7. Tampa Bay 154
  8. Washington 145

So don't expect barn burners every night.

Even so, this is going to be a really interesting series. The vast majority of people (including myself) are picking the Capitals to win, but while Boucher has made this out to be "David vs. Goliath," it really isn't - not when Washington had only four more points than the Lightning during the year.

What it'll probably be is a defensive battle, with the high-flying offensive stars trying to find ways through the road blocks coaches put in front of them.

And the goaltenders making a lot of saves.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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