Mind games begin in Caps-Bolts series

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- To hear Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher talk, you'd think there's no point in playing this series, that's how good the Washington Capitals are.

Not just good, formidable. Perhaps even unbeatable.

The Capitals are at the top of the mountain, they are the monsters, Boucher told reporters Thursday afternoon less than 24 hours after his Lightning defeated Pittsburgh on the road by a 1-0 count to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Tearing not just a page but a whole chapter from the coaches' handbook on burying an opponent with praise, Boucher couldn't say enough about the Lightning's Southeast Division colleagues.

Having looked over game film, Boucher lamented that he and his coaching staff could find no flaws in the Caps' game.

"We're the little naggers biting at their ankles. So yes, it's Goliath against David. That's what it is. So better get our slingshots ready," the rookie head coach said.

Even the schedule has the tables tilted in favor of the Caps, according to Boucher.

The Lightning arrived in Washington in the middle of the night Thursday and play Game 1 on Friday. Game 2 is Sunday before the series shifts to Tampa for Games 3 and 4 on back-to-back nights, Tuesday and Wednesday.

"What's going to be tough for us is the fact that when we're playing at home, we're playing a back-to-back, and obviously the energy level is going to be on their side for sure in that regard because we played a seven-game series. They did not. They've been resting for a while, and so all the rest we could have got certainly would have helped us, but in this situation, obviously it won't," Boucher said.

But here's the best part.

Hidden among the platitudes and genuflecting toward the Caps, Boucher managed to throw in this devious gem, the fact that the Caps are so good and have followed their organizational plan to a T, so only winning will suffice.

"If they don't win, it's a failure," Boucher said.

Oh, you mean like last year, when the Caps blew a 3-1 series lead against Montreal and lost in the first round after winning the Presidents' Trophy? Or the year before, when they blew a 2-0 series lead against Pittsburgh in the second round and the Pens went on to win the Stanley Cup?


Boucher seemed shocked when someone mentioned the term even though he had clearly asserted that all the pressure in this series is on the Capitals.

"Pressure is what I put in my tires," he insisted innocently.

It was a beautiful bit of pre-series gamesmanship.

Whether this effort to heap all of the expectation on the Capitals means anything will be revealed starting with Game 1.

The Caps, for their part, are simply happy to have someone to play, having been watching the rest of the first round unfold for almost a week now.

"Yeah, it's amazing, quite frankly, the difference of knowing who your opponent is and not knowing. You feel like you're just sort of waiting and lost in space, but it makes the series an awful lot closer, which it is anyway when you're going against a team in your own division, especially right now," coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters at the team's Arlington, Va., practice facility Thursday.

Both Boucher and Boudreau figure there will be adjustments, but neither team will be looking to make significant strategic changes from the first round.

"It should be interesting. They've got more game-breakers for sure than the Rangers have, and I think their special teams were an awful lot better than Pittsburgh's, so that's probably the difference," Boudreau said.

"In our series, the Rangers' power play wasn't that successful and we had a little bit of success on our power play, so I think it's going to be coming down to a lot of special teams battles," the Washington coach added.

The Lightning scored eight power-play goals in the first round, tied for the playoff lead with Anaheim, while the Capitals allowed just one New York power-play goal on 20 chances in their five-game series victory over the Rangers.

Boudreau, who earlier this season complained that Lightning forwards Steven Stamkos and Steve Downie were divers, did his bit for playoff détente, too, praising Stamkos and Martin St. Louis as top players in the league.

He must have been reading the same coaching manual that Boucher was, as Boudreau also insisted the Lightning will have an emotional advantage having come off their big Game 7 win in Pittsburgh.

"Today they rest. Tomorrow they ramp it up. They've been in seven-game series, they know the pressure of everything, they've played against us, they've got the emotion and everything on their side," Boudreau said.

"If we're successful tomorrow ... you guys will say -- they're tired. If we're not, for the most part, we're rusty. Depending on the outcome is how you guys are going to read the game anyway," Boudreau said.

Which just goes to show you that the hours before a playoff series are always filled with the most hot air.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.