Two former Southeast Division rivals squared off in game one of the Eastern Conference Final this evening, and it was the Washington Capitals who drew first blood as they defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 to take a 1-0 series lead. It was an uncharacteristically sloppy game from the Lightning, and one that was markedly worse than the series opener against Boston in the last round.
Washington was without Nicklas Backstrom this evening, which left the Capitals with only one of their top two centers and theoretically, an easier time for the Lightning in the match-up game. It didn’t matter. After a strong opening shift by the Point line to establish some pressure, it was the Capitals who took control of the game. Early on, the Stamkos line was pinned in the defensive zone by the Ovechkin line and that started the ice tilt.
Tampa Bay struggled to maintain any kind of offensive pressure and allowed Washington to skate through the neutral zone with little trouble. Normally, the Lightning clog the neutral zone and force teams to play a dump and chase game. That wasn’t the case in the first period as the Capitals entered the offensive zone with little pressure against them. Brett Connolly had a partial breakaway thanks to this and the Capitals had a beautiful one-timer from the right-wing that was stopped be Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay’s inability to clear their zone bit them as Washington scored 7:28 into the period. Michal Kempny fired a wrist shot from the point that got through traffic and past Vasilevskiy to make it 1-0. There isn’t much to break down here. Kempny fired it on net. Ovechkin was battling with Victor Hedman and Girardi in front. That created a three-man screen in front, and the puck got past Vasilevskiy. Those goals happen, surely Tampa Bay would straighten out its issues and put pressure on Washington.
Yea…no. Passing, positioning, decision making, shot selection, lack of pressure in all three zones, and an overall feel of discombobulation were all issues for the Lightning. Washington had free reign in the neutral zone and whenever Tampa Bay did manage to apply pressure on the Capitals, it was quickly neutralized. A late power-play for the Lightning provided some positive thoughts, but Tampa Bay only managed one dangerous shot. After failing to convert on the man advantage, Washington pushed play back into the Lightning zone. Tampa Bay managed to alleviate the pressure as Ryan McDonagh carried the puck toward the neutral zone. McDonagh saw a streaking Nikita Kucherov and fed a stretch pass towards him. Kucherov raced into the offensive zone and was hauled down by a Capitals defender. Kucherov still controlled the puck and managed to put a shot over Braden Holtby’s shoulder to tie the game at one.
Or was it?
Kucherov’s goal was waived off due to having too many men on the ice—which was the correct call. Want to know why Kucherov was so high in the neutral zone? That was due to Kucherov hopping on the ice while Tyler Johnson was still deep in the Lightning zone. I’m assuming Kucherov didn’t notice Johnson was still on the ice. Nonetheless, the goal was taken away and the Lightning went to the penalty kill for the first time this evening.
*sigh* Ovechkin scored five seconds into the power-play to make it 2-0 with less than two seconds in the first period.
I don’t even want to recap the second period. It was probably worse than the first. Jay Beagle scored 2:40 into the period. Seriously, what was Stralman doing on this play? And Lars Eller scored on the power-play 6:42 into the period. Eller’s was more a fortuitous bounce but you make your own luck. Tampa Bay continued to showcase the sloppy play that ruled their first period. Most notably, the precise passing that Tampa Bay is known for was absent. Passing to nowhere, passing directly to Washington players, making blind passes that make no sense, making drop passes that make even less sense, the list goes on.
Getting lost in the mess that was the Lightning this evening is the fact that Washington played an outstanding game. They were outskating, out-thinking, and out-Lightning the Lightning. Full credit must go to Washington for playing a near perfect road-game.
So, two periods of poor hockey saw the Lightning trail 4-0, and effectively out of game one. Tampa Bay needed to re-establish the process that saw them control the previous two series.
Surprisingly, the Lightning started to look like the Lightning in the third period. However, most importantly was the goaltending change that Tampa Bay made. Jon Cooper sat Vasilevskiy for the remainder of the night and put in Louis Domingue to close out the game. The four goals that went in can’t really be blamed on Vasilevskiy but letting the netminder get a little extra rest in a game that they were sure to lose seemed like a wise move.
The Lighting appeared to come to life a bit as they began to control the puck in the offensive zone more and force a few penalties. Tampa Bay’s first power-play of the period finally saw some good puck movement and thanks to that, the Lightning broke Holtby’s shutout bid. Steven Stamkos scored off a one-timer 3:45 into the third after receiving a cross zone pass from Kucherov. That made it 4-1 and the Lightning finally had some semblance of a heartbeat.
Washington’s gameplan as the third period progressed was to limit their mistakes and for the most part they did. Tampa Bay pushed play into the Capitals zone more consistently than before but it was clear that Washington was playing a prevent style of defense. Tampa Bay finally broke through again at 13:03 after forcing a turnover in the defensive zone. Tyler Johnson recovered a loose puck and fed a pass to a streaking Ondrej Palat. Palat raced down the left wing as Kempny lost his footing at the Lightning blueline. As Palat entered the Washington zone, he slowed down to force John Carlson to either commit to his shooting lane or take his passing option away. Carlson chose to go prone to take away the passing option and Palat fired it past Holtby high on the short side. Suddenly, it was 4-2 with seven minutes left in regulation.
Could the Lightning do the improbable?
They struggled to generate anything dangerous as the period continued and even with a 6-on-5 advantage for the last 90+ seconds, they struggled to enter the offensive zone. When they did enter the zone, they failed to put anything dangerous towards Holtby. The Capitals simply locked it down and flustered the Lightning.
The final, 4-2 Washington. The Capitals lead 1-0 in the Eastern Conference Final.
They Scored Twice
The goals ultimately didn’t matter as it took Tampa Bay 43 minutes to register one. But hey, at least they weren’t shut out. Seriously, that’s it.
This Whole Damn Game
Game one against Boston was a 6-2 loss but the Lightning were the victim to some poor bounces and lapses in coverage. This game? Washington simply outplayed them. For a team that was labeled as the “faster” team entering this series, the Lightning looked awfully slow covering the Capitals. Washington sliced through the neutral zone and took advantage of several positioning mistakes with odd-man rushes. The score could’ve been 4-0 after the first if not for some spectacular saves by Vasilevskiy.
Louis Domingue didn’t have to do a lot in the third period but he did make a wonderful pad save on a two-on-one (hey look, another odd man rush against). But aside from that, Domingue had a relatively quiet period.
Regardless, Tampa Bay laid an egg this evening. They showed some life in the third but it was too little too late. Luckily, this team has shown that they can shake off poor performances and bounce back. They did it during the season and they did it in round two against Boston who is arguably a better team than Washington. So let’s all just take a deep breath and look toward game two. No emotionally charged statements about the coaching staff or the players. You’ve all seen what this team can do. Have faith in them. It’s a marathon not a race for a reason.
Also, as I stated earlier, Washington deserves full credit for coming into Amalie Arena and punching the Lightning in the face. They stuck to their game-plan and made life miserable for Tampa Bay. If the Lightning don’t make the correct adjustments and force Washington into uncomfortable situations, then this series won’t be long.
Let’s hear what you have to say!