Being outplayed for large portions of the game but stealing a win is a process the Tampa Bay Lightning are not too familiar with. However, that is exactly what happened after Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 36 shots to lead the Lightning to a 4-2 victory over the Washington Capitals to even the Eastern Conference Final at two games apiece.
Barry Trotz threw a curveball at Jon Cooper to start game four this evening and decided to match the Jay Beagle line with the Cedric Paquette line. For those of us invested in the mind games of coaches, this was an interesting play by the Capitals’ head coach but one that was largely ineffective as Cooper quickly sent out the Steven Stamkos to line up against Washington’s adjustment.
That was the extent of the ‘match-up’ game that the two coaches played in the first period. The first two minutes of this game were rather slow compared to the previous three games as both teams appeared to be focusing on a more methodical approach rather than a frenetic pace capable of generating the required gigawatts to power a flux capacitor.
Tampa Bay managed to generate the first real form of offensive pressure as the Brayden Point line began their cycle game along the left-wing boards; they managed a single dangerous chance on Braden Holtby. Afterward, Washington started to assert control as they began to pepper Andrei Vasilevskiy with shots.
Washington’s pressure broke through Tampa Bay’s defense after Dmitri Orlov fired a rocket past Vasilevskiy from the left faceoff circle to give the Capitals the lead 4:28 into the opening period. Fortunately, it would only take the Lightning 1:10 to score the equalizer as Brayden Point was the recipient of a wonderful passing sequence with Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson. First, the Lightning has to thank Michal Kempny for making a horrendous turnover in his defensive zone as he blindly threw a backhanded pass that went directly to Johnson. Johnson passed it across the zone to Gourde who then fed it to a wide-open Point on the right side of the net.
Tampa Bay proceeded to control the game after Point’s goal and was rewarded with a power-play after Lars Eller was penalized for holding Nikita Kucherov in the neutral zone. Tampa Bay’s power-play took a little bit of time to get established in the offensive zone but once they did, the puck movement that they are known for showed its face. J.T. Miller recovered a puck below the goal line near the right boards before passing it to Kucherov in the right faceoff circle. Kucherov touch passed it back to Miller forcing Brooks Orpik to spin, which is when Miller made his touch pass to the slot where Point was.
Point received the pass and tried to feed the puck over to Stamkos at the left faceoff circle but his initial attempt was blocked. Point’s second attempt connected though and standing all by himself in the lower half of the left faceoff circle was Steven Stamkos. The Captain one-timed it past Holtby to score his fourth goal of this series (seventh overall this postseason) and to give Tampa Bay the 2-1 lead.
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay’s run of controlling play ended shortly after Stamkos’ go-ahead goal. An interference call on Gourde (which was hilariously biased since both him and Wilson should’ve gone to the box, but I guess locking a guy’s arm and throwing him down onto the ice is a perfectly legal play) started a trend of three consecutive penalties that were essentially back to back to back.
The back half of the first period was largely spent on the penalty kill. I’m not kidding. After Gourde’s penalty, Tampa started to get settled back in at even strength and then another penalty. Same thing happened after the next penalty. Luckily, Tampa Bay killed all three of these penalties and ended the period holding onto their one goal lead.
As for the second period? Washington dominated every facet of this period and tied the game after Evgeny Kuznetsov got behind the Lightning defense and beat Vasilevskiy five-hole. Side note here, what a ridiculously gorgeous pass by Alex Ovechkin to Kuznetsov; seriously, that pass was perfect.
Moving on though, Vasilevskiy…oh my bad, let me fix that typo…VEZINALEVSKIY stood on his head to keep the game tied and the Lightning roster should owe him dinner for the entirety of this season and next season for this performance. Tampa Bay had two good scoring chances late in the second but outside of those opportunities, this was all Washington. That’s all I have to say about the second period.
Both teams settled down into a pace and shared offensive zone time as the third period progressed. There were some scary moments though, the most vivid one being the outstretched pad save that Vasilevskiy made on Chandler Stephenson six minutes into the period. Something shifted after the midway point, however, as the Lightning began to finally take some control in the offensive zone. Their chip and chase gameplan finally started to reward them as the Capitals defenders struggled below their goal line with loose pucks.
This control led to a few dangerous chances for Tampa Bay but Holtby stood tall as he denied these opportunities with save after save. Washington finally withered under Tampa Bay’s pressure as Eller took a hooking penalty on Alex Killorn and put the Lightning back on the power-play. Needless to say, this power-play was Tampa Bay’s best chance to get the go-ahead goal and put the pressure back on Washington.
The first power-play unit struggled at times to establish itself in the offensive zone and were pushed out twice before Cooper decided to switch the units for the remaining 40 seconds of the man advantage. The second unit maintained offensive zone time for the remainder of the power-play but struggled to get any shots on net.
An errant pass by Gourde sailed across the Capitals zone where Mikhail Sergachev and Tyler Johnson went after the puck. Sergachev recovered it as Johnson provided a subtle screen to stop Tom Wilson from poke checking Sergachev’s stick. Sergachev threw the puck deep into the zone where Ondrej Palat recovered it behind the net.
Palat then made a blind backhand pass to the slot where Alex Killorn was waiting. Killorn caught the pass on his forehand, then transitioned it to his backhand to avoid John Carlson’s stick check before stuffing it underneath Holtby to give the Lightning a 3-2 lead with 8:03 left in regulation.
Predictably, Washington pushed back and forced Tampa Bay into a few scary situations that Vasilevskiy had to settle down. There were one-timers, deflections, in-close chances, and the kitchen sink thrown towards the Russian netminder and after all of that, Vasilevskiy stood tall. Barry Trotz decided to pull Holtby with a little over two minutes left in regulation to provide Washington with a pseudo power-play.
For the remaining two minutes of regulation, Washington controlled the puck in the offensive zone for 1:30. During that prolonged (and terrifying) possession, Washington once again threw everything they had at Vasilevskiy. And once again, the young Russian closed the door. Add in Washington’s issue with over-passing at the end and their offensive pressure slowly started to dwindle. Tampa forced the puck down into the Washington zone where Anthony Cirelli scored an empty-net goal to further secure the Lightning’s victory.
After dropping the first two games at home, the Lightning have come back to tie the series and have reclaimed home ice advantage for the remainder of the Eastern Conference Final. Will that home ice advantage be useful? That’s up for debate. Neither team has won a home game yet. Can Tampa Bay alter this narrative Saturday?
Do I really need to elaborate on this? This game could’ve been 6-2 during the onslaught that was the second period and the only reason it didn’t come to that was because of Andrei Vasilevskiy. He stole this game, period. Tampa Bay had no business winning this game given how poorly they played for long stretches. Washington played one hell of a game and deserved a better fate than this one but hot goaltenders can alter a series, Washington is well aware of this fact. Vasilevskiy displayed why he was a Vezina finalist with this dominant performance.
The first two games showcased how Tampa Bay’s passive approach to the penalty kill could be a detriment to the team and the past two games have shown how this approach has kept them alive in the games. You know why? Because hockey doesn’t make sense. I still don’t like how passive the penalty kill is but results are all that matter at this point. It has worked for the past two games so we will see if this continues on Saturday.
That Second Period
Just erase that period from memory. It never happened. It was just a nightmare.
We’re coming back to Tampa tied! Let’s get a discussion going!