The Capitals eliminated the Lightning in game seven of the Eastern Conference Final with a 3-0 victory to secure their berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights. This was Tampa Bay’s first home-ice game seven loss in franchise history (previously 3-0 at home).
This concludes an arduous 82 game season that saw the Tampa Bay Lightning achieve a franchise record 296 goals, win a franchise best 54 games, have a player score 100 points for the first time in 10 years, surge to the top of the NHL standings, retire an iconic number from the franchise, cool off, stave off a late push from the opposition to remain the top seed in the Eastern Conference, take down a resurgent and talented New Jersey Devils team, exorcise their own demons against a powerhouse Boston Bruins teams, and unfortunately, run into a Washington Capitals team that caught fire at just the right time.
Jon Cooper decided to slightly alter his lineup for this final game as he placed Alex Killorn with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. He also moved Ondrej Palat to the second line with Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson. The hope that this tweak of the top two lines would help Tampa Bay get through the Washington defense was admirable but just 1:02 into the opening period Alex Ovechkin made a statement.
Tom Wilson carried the puck into the Lightning zone near the right-wing boards before drop passing it to Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov then fed a pass across the blueline to Ovechkin who promptly fired toward Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy read the play but over committed and the shot beat him high above the shoulder to give Washington the all-important first goal. Here’s a fun stat about game seven’s over the last 30 years.
This was only the start of Tampa Bay’s struggles in this game. I’m going to alter up the recap this evening. I’m going to give a broad overview of the game instead of my traditional period by period breakdown.
This game was decided during the first 40 minutes; the final 20 was more of a formality than anything. Tampa Bay had a bevy of chances to tie this game before Andre Burakovsky scored on a breakaway in the second period.
Killorn had an in-close chance and a breakaway that didn’t go in. Victor Hedman hit a shot off the post. Brayden Point passed up numerous shooting opportunities for passes. Yanni Gourde whiffed on an empty-net after Hedman made a spectacular play to make Braden Holtby over commit and open the net. Stamkos had shooting opportunities that sailed wide, were blocked, or he passed on instead. Kucherov consistently over-passed this evening and struggled to get anything going in the offensive zone.
The fans expressed frustration tonight saying the team is “weak” or “can’t get it done” or “Cooper is a terrible coach” and while being frustrated at the loss is understandable, much of the criticism was hyperbolic. This is the same Lightning team fought back from a 2-0 hole to take a 3-2 series lead to make this Eastern Conference Final an actual series. Sometimes the better team doesn’t win; it happens. Washington can attest to this multiple times.
This series was even throughout, and it was going to come down to which goaltender stood up for his team more often. In this series, it was Braden Holtby. Additionally, Tampa Bay struggled to adequately adjust to Washington’s neutral zone pressure. Washington had a relatively easy time cutting through the neutral zone with the puck and Tampa Bay struggled to do the same. The Capitals planted themselves at the blueline and dared Tampa Bay to beat them to the outside, and Tampa Bay failed to do so.
Even considering those struggles, calling for a coaching change after making two Eastern Conference Finals and a Stanley Cup Final is downright baffling. Are there issues that need to be addressed with this team? Absolutely. First and foremost, the penalty kill was struggled for the entire season. There is little excuse for the Lightning penalty kill to be this poor. Whether the problem is system or personnel related, it needs to be rectified. You need a good penalty kill to win championships.
Now, some will overreact on the defensive side, but Tampa Bay’s defensive personnel isn’t the problem. However, I feel the system they run is too passive for how teams are attacking in the offensive zone. It’s been a recurring theme with the Lightning’s defensive performances over the past two seasons and scrutiny over the assistant coaches would be a wise approach for the organization.
As for the other three goals that Washington scored this evening, Burakovsky’s first of the game will be forever remembered as “Dan Girardi blowing it again”. The problem with picking the low-hanging fruit in this situation is the fact that the puck hit him in the chest, and as soon as it fell onto the ice Burakovky was on top of him. What could Girardi be reasonably expected to do in this situation? This is a freak play and it was only magnified because A) it was Dan Girardi and B) it happened right after Tampa Bay had dominated Washington for what felt like an eternity (refer back to the list of close-calls I listed above). As for goals three and four? Burakovsky scores on another breakaway after a horrid line-change (which have been a problem all season) and Nicklas Backstrom scored an empty netter.
Vasilevskiy’s positioning was a bit so-so here as well; he positions himself square to Burakovsky but Burakovsky’s stick was already to the outside of Vasilevskiy. This gave Burakovsky plenty of room on the outside to beat Vasilevskiy and he did just that to give Washington the proverbial “nail in the coffin”.
Tampa didn’t relent after this goal, though. They repeatedly attacked Washington, but, as some might say, “puck luck” wasn’t with them this evening. The Lightning had a litany of close chances after Burakovsky’s first goal and it felt as if they were battling a Washington team destined to make the Final. That’s obviously ridiculous but it’s a tough sentiment to shake given that Tampa Bay was shutout in two straight games to finish the series.
If someone had suggested this outcome prior to games six or seven occurring, they’d be laughed at. This was the highest scoring team in the league. They can’t be shutout in two playoff games in a row, can they? That’s exactly what happened, and Cooper said in his post-game presser, “It’s not about how many you put in the net, it’s how many you keep out”.
This loss will sting everyone associated with the organization and losing in this fashion at home is embarrassing. But before we allow frustration to overcome us, let’s just take a deep breath. Last season, this team didn’t even make the playoffs, and yet, it bounced back for one of its most dominant seasons in franchise history and made the conference final. This team had its sights on playing for the Stanley Cup and fell one game short. I’ll sound like a broken record, but again, the better team doesn’t always win (look at the Western Conference).
Before I wrap up this final recap, there is one final issue that has plagued not just this series, but the entirety of the postseason: officiating. It was bad in round one and it was bad in the conference finals. This absurdly archaic mentality of “let them play” is allowing the players to actively cheat to win games. Why this is lauded among many in the hockey world bewilders me. All for the sake of “tradition.”
Letting your players maul each other to death and take retaliatory runs at each other is not what this game stands for. There were an array of hits during this postseason that weren’t punished and should’ve been. Washington had a few in game six and the worst one in game seven was Cedric Paquette boarding Brooks Orpik in the second period. When every hockey pundit unanimously says “how is that not a penalty?” you know something is wrong. Regardless, this series wasn’t decided by the officials, but the playoffs are meant to showcase the best teams in a tournament format. If we expect the best of our players, then it must be reciprocated towards the officials. End rant.
Now, a heartfelt congratulation to the entire Washington Capitals organization and their fanbase for finally breaking what felt like decades worth of curses to make their first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years. I’ve always liked Ovechkin and hope he is able to win a championship (mainly so all of these trash Ovechkin takes can finally burn in a dumpster where they belong, and so I can watch old hockey men lose their mind that a “Russian” captain won the cup). It was one hell of a series that saw both teams push each other to the brink. Washington was simply able to play better at the end of the series. Go take on Vegas and win that cup, Washington.
Finally, I want to thank every single person who has taken the time to read my recaps and articles this season. You all are the reason I write and have continued to flesh out my opinion and viewpoint of the game this season. We don’t always agree, but that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. We’re all hurting after this loss, but this isn’t the end for the Lightning. They still have their core locked up for next year (the cap issues start the year after that), and you can be assured the organization will be looking to be a contender once again.
For now, lets all take a deep breath and be glad that we were able to even get this close to the Stanley Cup Final. It isn’t easy to win in the National Hockey League and the fact that the Tampa Bay Lightning have done it consistently during the Cooper tenure shouldn’t be overlooked. It still stings like hell but that’s sports. The euphoria of winning it all makes up for the years of not winning it all but the best a team can do is be in the conversation year in and year out. And that is exactly what the Lightning have done for the past five years.