Neither team during the Eastern Conference Final won a home game during the first four games of the series. That all changed as the Tampa Bay Lightning pushed the Washington Capitals to the brink of elimination with a 3-2 win thanks to goals from Cedric Paquette, Ondrej Palat, and Ryan Callahan.
It only took Tampa Bay 19 seconds to establish themselves in game five as Cedric Paquette beat Braden Holtby to give the Lightning an early 1-0 lead. The play began at the offensive blueline where Ryan Callahan chipped a puck past Matt Niskanen. Callahan and Dmitri Orlov both went after the loose puck in the left faceoff circle where Callahan won the battle and managed to direct the puck towards the slot where Paquette was waiting. Paquette received the pass, looked at Holtby, and beat him low on the blocker side to send Amalie Arena into a frenzy.
Tampa Bay proceeded to dictate the early part of the game and pinned the Capitals in their zone for long stretches of play. The only issue was their inability to get a high volume of shots on Holtby to take advantage of this pressure. Washington’s first real chance came four minutes into the period when Lars Eller drove down the right wing before attempting to make a pass into the slot. His play was thwarted by a sliding Mikhail Sergachev, which led to a clean zone exit by the Lightning.
Tampa Bay continued to suffocate Washington for the beginning part of the period as all four lines were buzzing in a manner that was reminiscent of the second round. The Steven Stamkos line created a bevy of chances that either went wide or were stopped by Holtby.
Midway through the period, after Orlov mishandled a clearing attempt at the Lightning blueline, Stamkos forced a turnover by pressuring the Russian defender (their skates collided and caused Orlov to fall). Nikita Kucherov retrieved the loose puck at the red line and proceeded to enter the offensive zone where he drew three Capitals defenders.
Kucherov then lofted a backhand pass to Ondrej Palat as he entered the offensive zone and Palat used Matt Niskanen as a screen to beat Holtby with a beautiful wrist shot from the top of the faceoff circles giving the Lightning a 2-0 lead with 10:56 left in the opening period.
Shortly after the Palat goal, appeared for Washington as Brett Connolly took a poor holding penalty that gave Tampa Bay their first power-play of the game. The Bolts struggled to establish control early during the man advantage but once they settled in they generated two dangerous opportunities. One was an in-close chance by J.T. Miller that sailed wide and the other was a one-timer by Kucherov that Holtby calmly gloved.
Washington had a small surge after killing the penalty and managed to regain some level of control. However, the Lightning did a solid job keeping the Capitals to the outside of the offensive zone and limiting their ability to generate slot shots. Tampa Bay pushed back at the end of the period by peppering Holtby.
Scoring within the first minute of any period is always advantageous. Scoring within the first minute of multiple periods is fantastic, which is exactly what the Lightning did to open the second period. Wait, it was the fourth line again? Ryan Callahan too? This is almost too good to be true!
Yes, Callahan scored 33 seconds into the second period to give the Lightning a dominating 3-0 lead. The goal was a result of Anton Stralman skating around Matt Niskanen and creating a scoring chance on Holtby. Stralman’s shot bounced off Holtby’s stick into the air and then bounced off Callahan’s glove and into the net. Holtby had sprawled out to stop Stralman’s chance and was in no position to make a save on Callahan’s tip.
Callahan’s tip was more fortuitous than skill since he was leveled by Alex Ovechkin as soon as the puck got close to him. If Ovechkin doesn’t hit Callahan there, the possibility that Callahan doesn’t knock the puck in is probably higher. Regardless, after a brief review, the officials ruled there was no reason to overturn the goal and confirmed the call on the ice: 3-0 Lightning.
Tampa Bay controlled the following two minutes of the period before Washington came to life. The Capitals pinned the Lightning in their own zone multiple times before converting on a tipped shot to make the score 3-1.
T.J. Oshie carried the puck below the Lightning goal line where he was checked off of it by Victor Hedman. The puck rolled back towards Evgeny Kuznetsov along the right-wing boards. Kuznetsov passed it to Niskanen at the point who fired it towards the net. Kuznetsov then lifted his stick and deflected it past Andrei Vasilevskiy to give Washington some life. As an aside on this goal, Niskanen’s shot looked to be wide on purpose, which makes the goal even more impressive (in this writer’s opinion).
A surge by the Brayden Point line generated a few scoring chances that Holtby steered aside. However, aside from this push and a smaller one later in the period, the Capitals dictated this period. Washington’s desperation level at this point was evident and Vasilevskiy had to make more than a handful of difficult saves to keep the Capitals at one.
To Tampa Bay’s credit, they weren’t being walked on during this pressure by Washington. They were conceding zone time to Washington, yes, but they were consistently keeping the Capitals to the periphery of the offensive zone. Washington did manage to break into the slot on a few occasions, but those were more the exception rather than the rule. As the second drew to a close, the Lightning held onto their 3-1 lead with a chance to take their first lead of the series if they could close out Washington.
As was the case during the first two periods, the opening minutes of the third were controlled by Tampa. A strong shift by the Stamkos line saw a chance by Kucherov sail wide of the net after Stamkos made a great play to feed him a pass while being covered. Multiple shots were blocked or missing the net entirely. It wasn’t the best case, but pressure in the Capitals zone is pressure not in the Lightning’s.
Unfortunately, Washington slowly started to take over the period as they stifled the Lightning’s neutral zone speed by stepping up at the red line. This adjustment by Washington forced the puck into the Lightning zone where some sloppy passing heightened the heart rate of everyone inside Amalie.
The structure the Lightning maintained during the first two periods started to show cracks as Washington’s forecheck battered them repeatedly at the midway point of the period. The Lightning bent, but didn’t break. They weathered this assault and managed to push Washington back into their zone for a few shifts but Washington came right back at them.
Washington’s desperation became even more evident during the latter half of the period as they repeatedly pinned Tampa Bay in the defensive zone and tried to crawl back into the game. The Lightning defensive structure continued to keep Washington toward the periphery and any chances that made it into the slot were either blocked, saved by Vasilevskiy, or cleared away by a Lightning defender.
A team can only defend for so long before something gives and with a team as talented as Washington, one is bound to be punished sooner or later. Alex Ovechkin scored off a one-timer to make it a one goal game with 1:36 left in regulation.
There isn’t much to breakdown here. Ovechkin blasted a one-timer off a John Carlson pass and managed to beat Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy read the play but sometimes you’re beat by a good shot. Ovechkin has a propensity for doing these kinds of things. Because…you know…he’s Alex freaking Ovechkin.
The final 1:36 of regulation was a cacophony of chaos as Washington desperately fired anything and everything at the Lightning net. Dan Girardi blocked an Ovechkin one-timer. Vasilevskiy made a desperation save at the right post to deny John Carlson a goal. Victor Hedman made several poke checks to force the Capitals to reset. Alex Killorn blocked a shot and cleared the puck to alleviate pressure.
Everyone on the ice for Tampa Bay to close this game touched the puck in some manner and neutralized Washington’s furious assault. The buzzer rang and Tampa Bay survived Washington’s comeback attempt to take a 3-2 series lead with a chance to secure a berth in the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.
That “Fourth” Line
A question was brought up during Jon Cooper’s presser about calling the Chris Kunitz-Cedric Paquette-Ryan Callahan line a fourth line. Cooper laughed at the question and stated that they are “one of their lines that contributes”; which he’s correct on. There has been a lot of talk this series about this line getting a lot of ice-time compared to previous series’ and on one hand I can understand where people are coming from. On the other hand, if your fourth line is going even with the opponent’s top line and limiting their scoring opportunities…well, you take that.
This line has been one of the best lines for the Lightning in this series. They haven’t appeared on the scoresheet often but their impact cannot be ignored. Scoring twice at the beginning of two separate periods is great for any line but for this line to finally be rewarded for the work they’ve put in during this post season is a slight form of poetic justice.
It was also a helpful reminder that these players aren’t just “grinders”, there is skill there. Is it as apparent as Stamkos or Kucherov? No, of course not, but they’re in the NHL for a reason and they’re fulfilling a role that Cooper established for them. You can’t ask for much more.
Celebrate these three, because they’ve been great in this series.
Honestly, there wasn’t anything of note that I disliked in this game. Sure, Washington controlled the second and the latter half of the third period. But let’s not disillusion ourselves and believe the Lightning are going to flatten teams every period.
Washington is a damn good hockey team that didn’t make the Eastern Conference Final as a fluke. They know how to battle and the fact that they came back to make it a one-goal game (regardless of what you may think about “garbage time”) is a credit to how hard this Capitals team fought back. If one of those blocked shots gets through or one of Vasilevskiy’s rebounds bounces in a different direction, this game could’ve been tied. Tampa bent, but didn’t break defensively and that’s something everyone should be grateful for.
Let’s hear it, folks!