A five-game skid is the longest the Bolts have gone without winning since April 2013, with Jon Cooper newly an NHL coach and Anders Lindback in goal (that one was six). The question going into tonight's game was, which skidding good team would continue to skid? Would it be the Washington Capitals' fourth loss, or the Bolts' sixth, tying Cooper's 2013 loss record?
“We had to end that skid we had going, and ending it at home in front of these fans, obviously it was nice,” Ben Bishop said, neatly summarizing the game.
Special teams proved to be the making of the game through all three periods, with the penalty kill especially strong through five of the six Bolts’ penalties. Late in the third, with the teams tied up on power play goals, it was hard to see which team would find the back of the net first. In fact, the teams were so evenly matched that the game wasn’t decided until the shootout, with Bishop hanging on for one more shootout save than Braden Holtby.
Bishop started tonight after Andrei Vasilevskiy was yanked partway through Thursday’s game against the St. Louis Blues. There was no goalie controversy at the other end of the ice, with Holtby looking far too comfortable in the net.
The pre-game montage emphasized desperation. "Bolts fight back," the text read. "We'll beat the Caps." The screen showed footage of chippiness, but few shots of goal celebrations or victories. That set the mood for the game, especially when Jon Cooper sent out his version of the nuclear option for his starting lineup -- the triplets reunited in front of Hedman and Stralman. Scratches were JT Brown, Nikita Nesterov, and Jason Garrison.
Brayden Point got the Bolts' first shot on goal a few minutes in, but it was the story of his NHL career so far -- great energy on the breakaway, but his nice easy shot was immediately deflected by Holtby. Point apparently saved all his finishing ability for the shootout goal at the end of the game.
At four minutes into the first, Tyler Johnson was high-sticked in the face by Niklas Backstrom. (Visible nosebleed for Johnson, oof.) Aside from two shots on goal, the power play didn't generate much. Four minutes later there was another power play after a frustrated Ovechkin got a tripping penalty, and Brian Boyle played with enough energy to try to shove the puck in under Holtby, but the net got unmoored before Bolts could capitalize.
Despite the power plays, Bolts were still trailing in shots at the halfway mark.
There were very few chances at evens until the 13 minute mark, when Kucherov had a decent look from the left circle, but Holtby made a swift deflection and kept the score at zero. The first ended with shots up 11-8, Bolts, with Holtby the difference-maker.
Bolts’ penalties abounded in the second. A minute in, Alex Killorn got called for hooking, but the Caps power play wasn't yet a fully operational Death Star, and Kucherov flew in on the PK like Red Leader for a shorthanded chance. (Too much Star Wars?)
At six minutes into the second, Joel Vermin had one of the best chances of the period. Skating in with maybe too much energy, he toedragged the puck to make a shot on Holtby, but momentum carried him straight into the goalie's stomach. Caps defender Nate Schmidtt took exception to Bolts in the Caps' crease and played a few shoving games with Cedric Paquette.
Shots were 15-10 Bolts near the halfway mark, with Holtby holding steady despite Hedman springing Kucherov on a breakaway, and one swift flurry of action where Boyle took advantage of a mess near the crease to make a swift shot toward Holtby's five-hole. Holtby kept perservering.
How good was Holtby? Ridiculously good, especially on Kucherov’s breakaway. Swift with his leg movement, perfect with his deflection.
At 11:49, Ovechkin took another slashing penalty on Hedman, and on the ensuing power play, the Bolts finally got a lucky break. Kucherov payed back his countryman's frustration by taking a slapshot from the right circle that passed right through an excellent screen by Boyle. In a goaltenders' battle like this one, the one goal lead seemed enormous.
What did we do to deserve Nikita Kucherov? #WSHvsTBL pic.twitter.com/jahT7qeqBn— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) December 4, 2016
Toward the end of the second, the Bolts had to kill two more penalties (a high-stick from Cedric Paquette, and interference from Valtteri Filppula), but managed to kill both on the strength of Ondrej Palat's effective clearing efforts.
After the second, in which the Bolts' special teams both scored and held strong on the kill, the Bolts' luck ended. Garrison took a high-sticking penalty at 6:22, and Backstrom scored his 7th goal of the season. But that was the only power play goal the Bolts allowed in the third.
At 10:19 Sustr was called for hooking, but the Caps power play looked so bad that Tyler Johnson even had a shorthanded chance. During the penalty kill, Paquette seemed stung by a shot that he blocked with his foot, but managed to remain on the bench, to the concerted relief of Bolts fans.
Shots pulled even at the end of the third, and neither team prevailed in regulation.
In overtime, everyone's adrenaline rose through the roof with both sides trading chances in swift, hitless hockey. In the last 30 seconds of overtime, Bolts received a bench penalty for too many men, and had to go on yet another penalty kill, this one with a defensive-zone faceoff.
Kucherov served the penalty, and Boyle, Filppula, and Hedman were the penalty killers. With seven seconds left in the game, Bishop made an enormous save on Ovechkin, and the penalty killers managed to pull the team through the last seven seconds to the shootout.
The tale of the shots:
Drouin - x
Kuznetsov - o
Point - o
Kucherov - x
Ovechkin - x
Boyle - o
Johansson - x
Bishop made the last save, Boyle gave the team a victory, and the skid was snapped.
In the press scrum after the game, Victor Hedman’s main concern was cleaning up and getting the heck out so that they could catch a flight to Carolina. “We’ve just got to keep going and grind out one more game,” Hedman said, “And then we get a bit of a break.”
On the way home on I-4, I listened to the ESPN Hockey Today podcast. They had a segment about Lightning goaltending, bringing up the fact that Pittsburgh and Tampa both have the same issue. In Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury is being eclipsed by the play of Matt Murray. In Tampa, well, several teams in the league have predatory eyes on Bishop.
What's the future of our team’s tandem, one that we so clearly need, especially after Bishop had such a strong effort (making 34 saves on 35 shots) tonight?
Sure would be nice to know.