Such is life -- and hockey -- that sometimes, when you fix one problem, you create another.
The Tampa Bay Lightning's struggling offense finally came to life on Tuesday night at Verizon Center against the Washington Capitals, potting five goals in the first sixty minutes of the game including a pair of man-advantage goals for what had been a truly anemic power play as of late.
Unfortunately, the rock-solid penalty kill finally laid an egg, allowing three goals on just five opportunities for the Caps en route to a 6-5 defeat in the skills competition.
The Bolts opened the match better than they had in what seems like weeks, immediately pressing the Caps back into their own zone, peppering Braden Holtby with shots, and retrieving loose pucks along the half-boards and in the corners in the offensive zone. That early zone time had the Caps on their heels and chasing the play, leading to an ugly (if unintentional) high-sticking infraction on Mike Green against Valterri Filppula that sent the Finnish forward to the bench for repairs.
Martin St. Louis wasted no time getting the Bolts out of their power play funk, when just 12 seconds into the four-minute man advantage he cut to the middle of the high slot and sent a long, quick wrister past Holtby, who was completely screened by Ondrej Palat and his own defenseman and never saw the shot.
The Lightning, who continued to carry play even after the long advantage expired, went right back to it (with more thanks to Mike Green) and converted on a nice feed from Teddy Purcell to Nikita Kucherov, who buried a high-slot one-timer for his second career NHL goal, giving the Lightning an early 2-0 lead.
The Caps, shellshocked a bit by the hot start, got caught again, this time standing still in the neutral zone and allowing J.T. Brown and Nate Thompson to break in 2-on-1. Brown fed a nice pass through a listless Mike Green (who else) to Thompson, who lifted the puck over Holtby for the quick 3-0 lead and sending the young goaltender to the bench in favor of his backup, Philipp Grubauer.
The Caps finally captured some momentum of their own off a set piece in the offensive zone when Nicklas Backstrom won a draw straight to Alex Ovechkin's stick for a quick wrist shot that eluded Lightning netminder Ben Bishop and righted the ship a bit for the Caps as the first period wound down. Still, even with Ovechkin stopping the bleeding, the Bolts dominated the first, finishing with a 12-7 shot advantage and a 3-1 lead on the scoreboard.
The middle frame saw strong pushback from the Caps on the back of their power play, which has been a significant strength for them since Adam Oates was brought in as head coach and instituted a 1-3-1 system (no, not that 1-3-1) that has been copy-catted around the league. A holding call on Eric Brewer barely four minutes into the second put the Caps on the power play, and Nicklas Backstrom beat Bishop after the puck pinballed around between the side of the net and the slot a few times, just seconds after a sprawling Nate Thompson failed to clear a puck that would have likely killed the penalty.
Tyler Johnson restored the two-goal lead for the Bolts later in the second on the rush with linemates Ondrej Palat and Martin St. Louis, a trio that has brought some offensive life to the previously snake-bit Lightning in recent games. St. Louis fed the puck through the middle looking for Johnson's stick, but instead found a Cap, who deflected it straight to Palat. A quick shot caused a juicy rebound for Johnson to spin around and backhand in, giving the Lightning their second two-goal lead of the evening.
Unfortunately, it wouldn't last long, as Richard Panik took an ill-advised 5 minute (unreleasable) major penalty for boarding against Caps defender Karl Alzner, forcing the Bolts to play five straight minutes of penalty kill time regardless of goals scored by Washington.
This person wasn't the only one with this sentiment:
Richard Panik is an idiot— Josh Kay (@JoshKay_Fantasy) December 11, 2013
And one fan following the game was even a little bit prophetic:
Let's go ahead and nominate Richard Panik for "worst penalty of the year". Ovi may score 3 on the major penalty alone.— Torch Ramrod (@torchramrod) December 11, 2013
Alex Ovechkin capitalized with a pair of goals, the first just seconds into the 5-minute advantage, beating an outmatched BJ Crombeen to the backdoor and one-timing a puck past Bishop to draw the Caps back within one. The second tied it up on a play Lightning fans have gotten accustomed to seeing Steven Stamkos finish, with a hard one-timer from the left faceoff dot that beat Bishop, evening the score at 4-4.
Rather than collapsing in the third period having given up 3-0, 3-1, and 4-2 leads, the Lightning jumped back on the Caps in the final frame, outshooting them 15-7 entirely during 5v5 play, where the Lightning were clearly the better team all night. More good offensive zone work by the Palat-Johnson-St. Louis line resulted in the Lightning regaining the lead with just over 11 minutes remaining in the game as Palat finished a centering feed from St. Louis that bounced around in the slot before it made it's way to the rookie forward's stick.
The Lightning looked to be getting back in the "W" column, when, with less than a minute to go, the Caps pulled Grubauer for the extra attacker, and Ovechkin found space under Bishop's arm for the 4th time on the night, sending the game to overtime. A scoreless extra session sent this barn-burner to the skills competition, where Bishop was done in by nice moves from Eric Fehr, Mikhail Grabovski, and Troy Brouwer, while only Teddy Purcell and Nikita Kucherov bested Grubauer as the Caps took the bonus point and the game 6-5.
- Alex Ovechkin's offensive outburst isn't too unexpected when you consider the Lightning penalty kill and undisciplined play -- Ovechkin had more power-play time on ice (8:28) than 2/3 of the Capitals' 4th line's total TOI: Tom Wilson (3:17), Aaron Volpatti (4:32), and Jay Beagle (8:31).
- Also on that subject is a troubling trend concerning the Lightning and the very high number of shots and shot attempts they allow when down a man. (Thanks to Mike Gallimore from Bolt Prospects and Bolt Statistics for pointing that one out.)
- The three "natural" (and I use that term loosely) centers in the Lightning lineup were massacred at the faceoff dot, as the Caps finished the game with a 36-22 faceoff advantage. While your play with or without the puck after a draw is still more important than the draw itself, Ovechkin's first goal highlights the necessity for strong play in that area of the game, particularly in the defensive zone. Nate Thompson (29%), Tyler Johnson (42%), and Valterri Filppula (44%) were all worse than a coin-flip at the dot.
- While the Caps were dominant on the power play, the Lightning were even better at evens. If that link is your first foray into Extra Skater, basically, what it means is the Lightning crushed the Caps in terms of even-strength puck possession, something that is tracked by proxy using shot attempts. The Bolts controlled a ludicrous 70.1% of all 5v5 shot attempts in the game, routinely hemming the Caps in for long time-on-attack stretches. While the penalty kill was exploited, that was against one of the best power plays (and best scorers) in the league, and the better 5v5 play is a good sign moving forward.
- Nikita Kucherov's shootout goal was absolutely filthy. Downright Forsbergian. His earlier power play marker was nothing to shrug at either.