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Opposite day for the Lightning as Capitals sweep the season series

Deflating is the best term for last night’s game.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Tampa Bay Lightning returned from their Global Series matchup in Sweden, they’ve been a dominant possession team. A welcome contrast to how they started the season. The lingering problem has been inconsistent play in their own end in addition to below average goaltending. Last night, Tampa Bay played as well as you could have asked in their own end, but still ended up losing after a lethal power-play went 0-for-7.

Metrically, this game isn’t pretty. Washington controlled 56% of the shot attempts at 5v5. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Quality wise, it was near even with the Capitals generating an xGF% of 50.11%. Washington had the volume on Tampa Bay, but that’s about it. Scoring chances were 18-17 in Tampa Bay’s favor, and high danger chances were 6-5 in favor of Washington.

Tampa Bay did struggle in the neutral zone last night. Repeatedly, they kept getting closed off by Washington’s neutral zone pressure and it caused the game to bog down for the Lightning offense. The Capitals, on the other hand, had very little trouble navigating the neutral zone. Time after time they would connect with short quick passes to in-stride teammates to slice through Tampa Bay’s first wave of defense. This forced Tampa Bay to become more passive in the neutral zone as a result. This alteration didn’t necessarily hurt the Lightning, but it did allow Washington to dictate the pace and force Tampa Bay into a more counter attacking mindset.

The biggest positive from last night was from Tampa Bay’s goaltending. Curtis McElhinney played a brilliant game and neither of the goals that beat him were his fault. The first goal from Radko Gudas was going high and wide before it hit Ryan McDonagh in the chest and deflected in. The second goal saw Cedric Paquette and Erik Cernak screen McElhinney from Dmitri Orlov’s point shot that made it 2-1 shortly after Nikita Kucherov tied it.

After watching this goal roughly 30 times, I’m still befuddled. I don’t think Cernak really does anything wrong here. He plays a strong gap on Evgeny Kuznetsov near the boards. He’s expecting Kuznetsov to make a pass down low to Jakub Vrana, but doesn’t over commit himself. The puck does go to Vrana, but since Cernak motions with Kuznetsov there is no one in position to get in Orlov’s shooting lane. This is where Paquette comes in.

Paquette is late to this sequence due to the uncalled interference by Gudas in the offensive zone, but I don’t think Paquette made the right play here. He goes low in an effort to close off a pass to the front of the net when there are already two Lightning players there (McDonagh and Yanni Gourde). By the time Orlov shoots this puck, Paquette looks lost, Cernak is regaining his balance after failing to connect a hit on Kuznetsov, and McElhinney is playing the guessing game behind them.

After spending 50 minutes trudging through this game and finally tying it, this goal mostly deflated me. It was only 3:57 after Kucherov tied the game with his 200th career goal. Tampa Bay continued to push for the next equalizer, but it never came. What’s more damning is that the Lightning went 0-for-7 on the power-play, including a 5-on-3. Yes, the second best power-play goose egged opportunities. They were playing against the third best penalty killing unit, but they’ve scored on this group before.

This makes it sound like Tampa Bay completely squandered their power-plays, and in a laymen sense they did. However, they generated plenty of good looks and scoring chances. They adjusted their strategy to compensate for Washington’s aggressiveness and it worked at creating some space for Bolts shooters. It just wasn’t enough against Washington’s best player last night: Braden Holtby.

In a game where both goaltenders were sharp, Washington got a fortunate bounce and a friendly screen. Tampa Bay had to scratch and scrounge for every opportunity until Kucherov rifled one past Holtby. Unfortunately, that’s hockey on some nights. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Lightning were outplayed by a wide margin last night. It was still a winnable game, but a team with this much shooting talent should never go 0-for-7 on the power play, especially when Washington gifted them four power-plays in the third period (including the 5-on-3).

Now, Tampa Bay is left with a 17-13-4 record and 38 points through 34 games. Their games in-hand are practically non-existent at two games, and they’re three points out of a playoff spot. The only way Tampa Bay is making the post season this year is through their division, the wildcard is dominated by the Metropolitan division. Next up on the schedule are the Florida Panthers on Monday night in what has to be considered a must win affair for Tampa Bay. Given how well McElhinney played against Washington and how Andrei Vasilevskiy has struggled this season, it wouldn’t surprise me if head coach Jon Cooper starts McElhinney. Then again, he’s always shown a propensity to ride his starter. We’ll see what happens come Monday. Regardless, time is running out on this Lightning team to click in all three facets at the same time.