Monday, May 21, 2018

Eastern Conference Final -- Game 6: Washington Capitals 3 - Tampa Bay Lightning 0

There will be a Game 7.

The Washington Capitals kept their hopes of a Stanley Cup alive on Monday night, forcing a Game 7 in their Eastern Conference final series with a 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Capital One Arena.

First Period

This was a hard, closely fought game from the first puck drop.  The teams traded momentum, the Caps feeling it early and the Lightning grabbing the advantage late in the period, but neither team could solve the other’s goaltender in the first 20 minutes.  There was not a lot of work for either netminder, the teams combining for only 14 shots in the opening period.  Washington had eight shots on goal, Tampa Bay had six.

Second Period

The Caps killed off an early shorthanded situation, Jay Beagle going off on a hooking call, and it was the only power play of the period until late in the frame.  With under seven minutes to go in the period, Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburnwas sent off on a hooking call.  It was the break the Caps needed.  Nicklas Backstrom circled out from the right wing corner along the wall and played catch with Evgeny Kuznetsov at the goal line.  When Backstrom took the return pass from Kuznetsov, he slid down the wall to create a passing lane, and when Alex Killorn reversed his stick to defend against a pass to the top of the zone, Backstrom had his opening.  He slid a pass between Killorn and Ryan McDonagh to T.J. Oshie for a one-timer that beat goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy on the glove side to make it 1-0, 15:12 into the period.

That would be how the teams went to their respective locker rooms after 40 minutes, the Caps holding a decided 23-14 edge in shots on goal.

Third Period

One had a feeling that the team scoring the next goal would win, and mid-way through the period, we had our answer.  Hustle was the keyword on the scoring play.  It started (and keep this in mind) with Devante Smith-Pelly chipping the puck out from below the goal line and out of the Olympia corner in his own end through center ice.  Chandler Stephenson chased Coburn down ice and forced the linesman to wave off icing as the puck slowed at the Lightning goal line.  Stephenson hounded Coburn off the puck behind the Lightning net, and Jay Beagle gathered it up in the corner to Vasilevskiy’s left.  Begale sent it back in the direction from which it came, to Stephenson below the goal line.  Stephenson backhanded a pass out to Smith-Pelly – the player who started the play 190 feet in the other direction – and he snapped a shot under Vasilevskiy’s pad to make it 2-0 at the 10:02 mark of the period.

The Caps clamped down from there, including a critical penalty kill just minutes after Smith-Pelly’s goal, and Oshie wrapped up the scoring with an empty net goal with 50 seconds left to send the teams off to a Game 7 on Wednesday night.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps extended an odd record of never having lost an elimination game on home ice in games other than a Game 7.  They are 6-0 in such games.

-- This was Braden Holtby’s 71st appearance this season, regular season and playoffs.  This was his first shutout of the season.

-- This was T.J. Oshie’s second career multi-goal playoff game on home ice with the Caps.  His other one was a hat trick (including the overtime game-winner) in a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the 2016 Eastern Conference semifinal.

-- Nicklas Backstrom had a pair of assists, his 23rd career multi-point playoff game.  The Caps are 15-8 in those games (seven of the eight losses were in overtime).

-- Devante Smith-Pelly recorded his eighth career playoff goal.  His teams have won seven times when he recorded a goal.

-- Hits can be a bit arbitrary in their award, but the Caps finished with a 39-19 edge in credited hits.  Most times that is a reflection of the other team dominating possession, but in this one it seemed more a case of the Caps imposing their will on the game.

-- Lars Eller has had a difficult series, and he did not record a point in this game, but he was a symbol of the idea, don’t be a liability, play your game.  In 16 minutes of ice time, he had three shots on goal, six shot attempts, three hits, and he won 12 of 18 faceoffs.  That was a solid third line center performance.

-- Here is a number to keep in mind for Game 7: 16:55.  That was Alex Ovechkin’s ice time.  In only one other game in this postseason did Ovechkin have less ice time, that in the Caps’ 6-3 Game 6 series-clinching win against Columbus in the first round (16:08).  He might have a lot more in the tank.

-- Brooks Orpik isn’t going to put up big – or many – offensive numbers, but his performance was “Orpikian” – 19:38 in ice time, a fight, six hits, a blocked shot, and he finished plus-1.

-- The Caps were solid down the middle in this game, right down to Jay Beagle, who finished with an assist, plus-2, two takeaways, two blocked shots, and he won 13 of 16 draws.  A solid fourth-line center effort.

In the end…

The Caps did what they had to do – they gave themselves a chance.  They did it in Game 6 by dictating pace and style for most of the game, and they got perhaps Braden Holtby’s best game of the season.  It was certainly his biggest clutch performance.  In a game like this, in a situation like this, not everyone needs to be a star, but you can’t be a liability out there.  In that respect, the Caps were a seamless unit of 18 skaters.  There were few holes and few opportunities for Tampa Bay to gather much in the way of momentum.  Everyone played in their lane, which made for as solid a “team” effort as the club displayed this season.  Do it one more time, and the Caps will be heading west to open the next round.

Washington Capitals: Ten-HUT!!!

Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a hockey game by taking a hit for his team. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard take a hit for his team. Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about the Caps not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the contest, is a lot of horse dung. Caps traditionally love to fight. All real Caps love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball player, the toughest boxer. Caps fans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Caps play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost...and laughed. That’s why this spring Caps have never lost and will never lose a playoff series.  Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Capitals.

Now... a hockey club is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, skates as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for NHL Network don’t know anything more about real hockey games than they do about fornicating.

We have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit and the best men in the world. You know, by God I actually pity those poor bastards we’re going up against. By God, I do. We’re not just going to check the bastards, we’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to tape the blades of our sticks. We’re going to hit those lousy Lightning bastards by the bushel.

Now, some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you'll chicken out under fire. Don't worry about it. I can assure you that you will all do your duty. The Lightning are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Check them into the boards. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's'll know what to do.

Now there’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We’re not holding anything. Let Tampa Bay do that. We are advancing constantly, and we’re not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We're going to hold onto him by the nose, and we're going to kick him in the ass. We're going to kick the hell out of him all the time, and we're gonna go through him like crap through a goose.

There’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home. And you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you, "what did you do in the great Stanley Cup playoffs," you won’t have to say, "Well, I shoveled shit in DC."

Alright now, you sons-of-bitches, you know how I feel. Oh...and I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle – anytime...anywhere.

...that's all.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Eastern Conference Final -- Game 5: Tampa Bay Lightning 3 - Washington Capitals 2

Things started poorly right out of the gate for the Washington Capitals in Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.  They dug themselves an early hole and ran out of time before they could climb out of it, dropping a 3-2 decision to leave themselves on the brink of elimination going into Game 6 in Washington.

First Period

It took the Lightning just 19 seconds to put the Capitals in a hole.  With the Lightning getting an early territorial advantage off a Capitals neutral zone turnover, Ryan Callahan smacked the puck off Dmitry Orlov in the left wing circle, where it found its way right onto the stick of Cedric Paquette.  He wasted no time in snapping a shot past goalie Braden Holtby and the Lightning were off and running. 

Mid-way through the period, Tampa Bay struck again.  Orlov was nudged off the puck by Steven Stamkos in the neutral zone, and with Orlov splayed on the ice, Nikita Kucherov grabbed the puck and darted into the offensive end.  He fed Ondrej Palat filling in down the middle, and Palat snapped a shot past Holtby’s blocker to make it 2-0 9:04 into the period.  This would end the first period scoring.

Tampa Bay had 13 shots on goal to the Caps’ four (three by defensemen), and they had a 29-8 edge in shot attempts.  Twelve Capital skaters did not have a shot attempt, including the whole top line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin, and Tom Wilson.

Second Period

Tampa Bay struck in the first minute again, this time when Anton Stralman walked around defenseman Matt Niskanen and curled to the net, his shot popping up into the air.  Callahan swooped in, and the puck ricocheted off his right hand over a prone Holtby, and it was 3-0 just 33 seconds into the period.

Evgeny Kuznetsov got one back for the Caps, finishing off a generally good all-around shift.  The Caps worked tha puck along the right wing wall until it came out to Matt Niskanen at the right point.  Niskanen backed off to create a shooting lane, and he fired the puck past Stamkos’ left leg toward the Lightning net.  Kuznetsov, angling in from the right wing circle, got his stick on the puck as it was sailing by and redirected it off the near post behind goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and in to make it 3-1, 4:21 into the period.  Despite more pressure applied by the Caps over the course of the period, this was the only puck they could sneak past Vasilevskiy.

Third Period

With a two-goal lead going into the period, the Lightning were looking to hang on.  They played like it.  They exerted little pressure in the offensive zone and tried to get in the way of every shot attempt in their own end.  The strategy nearly backfired late in the period when Alex Ovechkin one-timed a pass from John Carlson past Vasilevskiy with 1:36 left in regulation.  That would be as close as the Caps would get, though, and the Lightning took their third win in a row in this series, 3-2.

Other stuff…

-- When Evgeny Kuznetsov scored a goal in the second period, he set a franchise record of 22 points in a single postseason, topping the 21 points that Alex Ovechkin had in 2009. And, he did it on his 26th birthday.  Ovechkin’s goal gave him 21 points in this postseason, tying his career best.

-- Think the Caps were pressing late?  Alex Ovechkin averaged 43 seconds per shift in the first period and 52 seconds per shift in the second.  He averaged 1:07 per shift in the third period.  He skated 6:49 of the last 10:15 of the game and 4:28 of the last 4:48 of the game.

-- Ovechkin did not record a shot on goal until there was 3:38 left in regulation.  He had three shots on goal in that last 3:38, the last of which was his goal.

-- The Caps had 30 shots on goal for the game; John Carlson had eight of them.

-- After posting 29 shot attempts in the first period, Tampa Bay had only 19 shot attempts over the last 40 minutes.

-- Nicklas Backstrom, despite his wonky hand, won 12 of 17 faceoffs.  He has won 18 of 26 draws taken in this series (69.2 percent).

-- This was the first game in this postseason that the Caps did not have a power play.  It was the eighth time in team history they did not have a single power play chance in a game, the first since Game 1 in the Eastern Conference semifinal against Pittsburgh last season.  The Caps are 2-6 in such games and have never won such a game when played on the road.  The oddest part of this string in the fabric of history is that of the eight postseason games played without the benefit of a power play, four have come against the New York Islanders.

-- The Caps had more hits (35) than shots on goal (30).  Then again, so did Tampa (24 to 22).

-- When Tampa Bay got their third goal, it was a sign.  In losing this game, the Caps are now 4-7 when allowing three or more goals in this postseason, 6-0 when allowing two or fewer.

-- Braden Holtby now has a streak of the sort he has never had before.  In stopping 19 of 22 shots (.864 save percentage) he now has three straight games with a save percentage under .900.  He stopped 54 of 64 shots over those three games (.844).  He has a lifetime record of 10-9 in the postseason when facing fewer than 25 shots in a full game.

In the end…

The series now enters its elimination phase, and it really becomes more of which Caps team shows up in Games 6 and 7.  If the team that skated the third period of Game 5 shows up and skates that way for 60 minutes in each contest, they can (and probably should) win this series.  If the team that skated the first 20 minutes in Game 5 opens the same way in Game 6, then Tuesday will be the first day of another long offseason.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Eastern Conference Final -- Game 4: Tampa Bay Lightning 4 - Washington Capitals 2

The Washington Capitals had an opportunity to take a stranglehold on their Eastern Conference final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night at Capital One Arena.  When the final horn sounded, the Caps lost their vise-grip on the series with a 4-2 loss and face the unsettling possibility of perhaps having to play one more game on home ice this season, a place that has provided no advantage to the Caps in this series.

First Period

The early game feeling out period ended abruptly with the Caps taking the first lead in the game’s fifth minute.  It was a matter of persistence, starting with Dmitry Orlov working himself free to get a shooting lane on the Tampa net.  His initial shot was stopped by goalie Andri Vasilevskiy,and the rebound that found its way to the stick of T.J. Oshie was stopped on a pirouetting move by Vasilevskiy that enabled him to get his left pad on the shot.  Oshie recovered behind the Lightning net and fed Orlov, who leaned into a one-timer that nicked Vasilevskiy’s shoulder on the way through, but not enough to keep the puck from settling into the net in the far top corner.  The Caps led, 1-0, 4:28 into the game.

The lead lasted 70 seconds, though.  A ghastly no-look backhand pass from Michal Kempny in his own end was put right on the stick of Tampa’s Tyler Johnson.  A tic-tac-toe passing sequence later, and it was Brayden Point putting the puck in the back of the net from close range at the 5:38 mark.

Less than three minutes later, Tampa Bay had its first lead of the game.  With Lars Eller in the box on a holding call, Steven Stamkos one-timed a pass into the short side of the net from the left wing circle before goalie Braden Holtby could get across to close the hole.  The Lightning led, 2-0, 8:32 into the period and took that lead to the first intermission.

The Caps held a 15-7 edge in shots on goal and a 23-11 edge in shot attempts overall.  They out-hit the Lightning, 12-7, and they won 16 of 24 faceoffs (66.7 percent).

Second Period

The Caps opened the period with sustained pressure on the Lightning, and it yielded dividends five minutes in.  Tom Wilson pried the puck off the wall at the penalty box side of the neutral zone, and Alex Ovechkin scooped it up.  He turned and lifted a long saucer pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov streaking down the left side.  Kuznetsov worked his way around Yanni Gourde, who tried to whack Ovechkin’s pass out of the air.  Kuznetsov broke in on Vasilevskiy and snuck a shot between the pads to tie the contest at the 5:18 mark.

Despite consistent pressure from the Caps that kept Tampa bottled up in their own end, there would be only the one goal in the second period, the teams going to the locker rooms tied 2-2 after 40 minutes.

The Caps out-shot the Lightning, 14-6, in the second period and out-attempted them, 24-16.

Third Period

The teams traded momentum in the first half of the third period, the Caps with the advantage early on, but the Lightning starting to tilt the ice as the minutes ticked by.  Tampa was gifted an advantage when Lars Eller took his second penalty of the game.  The Caps managed to kill the power play, but it was for naught as the Lightning scored six seconds after the penalty expired, Alex Killorn putting Tampa Bay ahead 11:57 into the period.

The goal did seem to take the wind out of the Caps’ sails for a few minutes. The Caps did rally to put pressure on the Lightning late, but Anthony Cirelli wrapped things up for the visitors with an empty net goal with two seconds left to clinch it, 4-2.

Other stuff…

-- The Capitals had three power play chances in the first period, converting none of the seven shots they managed to put on goal over the six minutes of man advantage ice time.

-- That makes 0-7, all-time, against the Lightning on home ice.

-- Washington finished with a 38-20 advantage in shots on goal and a 65-45 edge in shot attempts.

-- Nicklas Backstrom returned to the ice, recording four shots on goal (tied for team lead) and winning six of nine faceoffs.

-- Lars Eller took two minor penalties, giving him five in the last two games.  This after going nine straight games without taking a penalty.

-- Alex Ovechkin had 13 shot attempts, but six of them were blocked.

-- The Caps played a short bench with Andre Burakovsky (8:30), Devante Smith-Pelly (8:42), and Jay Beagle (9:27) all skating fewer than ten minutes.

-- The Caps were 0-for-4 on the power play, despite getting the players who needed to shoot their shots on goal.  Ovechkin had three, and T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov had two apiece.

-- Smith-Pelly was credited with a team-high six hits.

-- Braden Holtby stopped 16 of 19 shots faced.  He is now 35-for-42 in Games 3 and 4 (.833 save percentage).

In the end…

The series is now tied, but that is a matter of arithmetic.  The momentum the Caps grabbed in Tampa, they surrendered on home ice, and Tampa is now in control of the series.  The best that can be said is that the home team has lost every game in this series.  But that isn’t the sturdiest foundation for hope as this series heads into its best-of-three phase.  The Caps’ mettle is being tested.  They have passed the tests presented to them thus far.  They will have to do it again in Game 5 to avoid facing elimination on home ice in Game 6, a place that has become a house of horrors in this series.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Washington Capitals: Three Games In and When It Just Doesn't Matter

Round 3’s Game 3 look-back at the Washington Capitals puts us in a mind of the cinematic triumph that is “Meatballs.” That American screen classic featured one of the truly great inspirational speeches in film, offered by the legendary comedic genius, Bill Murray, in his tour de force

Boiled to its essence, the theme today is, “it just doesn’t matter…”
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps are up, two games to one, in this series.  They were down, 1-2, to Columbus in Round 1, and they were up, 2-1, against Pittsburgh in Round 2.
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps allowed two power play goals in Game 3 last night.  They allowed two power play goals in Game 2 and won.
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps allowed those two power play goals for the second time in this series.  They allowed two power play goals twice to Columbus, and they allowed two power play goals twice to Pittsburgh.  They won both series in six games.
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps had 38 shots on goal last night.  It was the highest shot total they had in a game settled in regulation in this postseason, and in the four games in which they finished a game with at least 35 shots, whenever it ended, the Caps are just 2-2.
  • It just doesn’t matter that Tampa Bay had five power play opportunities last night.  It was the third time in this postseason that the Caps faced five shorthanded situations (one in each series now), and they won their previous two instances.
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps won only 43.8 percent of their faceoffs last night (28-for-64).  First, it is the second straight game that they went 28-for-64), and second, the Caps are 8-2 when finishing below 50 percent on draws in this postseason.
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps’ shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 were 53.16 percent last night.  The Caps are 5-3 when over 50 percent in this postseason, 5-2 when under 50 percent.
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps had only seven blocked shots last night.  They are 3-3 when recording fewer than 15 blocked shots.
  • It just doesn’t matter that Jay Beagle was minus-7 in shot differential at 5-on-5.  The Caps are 9-4 in games when he is a minus player in those situations.
  • It just doesn’t matter that Braden Holtby lost last night.  He has not lost consecutive games in the same postseason since he lost Games 1 and 2 to Pittsburgh last spring.  That’s 20 straight games (he did lose consecutive games in the last game last spring and the first one against Columbus this spring).
To put it more succinctly, it just doesn’t matter what happened.  What matters is Game 4.  Let the Mohawks…er, Lightning… get all the really good-looking girls… we’ll take the win instead.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Washington Capitals: A Brief History of Winning Games 1 and 2 on the Road

The Washington Capitals have had a difficulty history in the postseason, as even the most casual Caps fan knows.  One of the noteworthy facts of that history is what happens in Games 1 and 2, and what follows.  More to the specific point, now that the Caps have won Games 1 and 2 in their conference final series against Tampa Bay, what does history have to say, if anything, about that development?

As it turns out, not much.  But even a limited history suggests that there could be a test lurking on home ice in this series.  Coming into this season, Washington won Games 1 and 2 of a best-of-seven series eight times in team history.  Oddly enough, the first time they did so had to wait until 1992, when they defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in Games 1 and 2 on home ice before dropping the series in seven games.

The wins in Games 1 and 2 in this series against Tampa marked the third time in team history that the Caps swept the opening games of a best-of-seven series on the road.  The first time was in 1996 against the Penguins, and the other instance was against the Lightning in 2003.  Both series later featured something one would hope to be avoided this year – a multi-overtime game.

In 1996, the Caps and the Penguins needed four overtimes to settle Game 4 at USAirways Arena in Landover, MD.  It was a game that the Caps led, 2-1, after two periods, but Petr Nedved scored a power play goal eight minutes into the third period to tie the game, and Nedved ended the contest with only six seconds remaining on a Penguin power play and only 45 seconds left in the fourth overtime.  At the time, it was the third-longest game ever played in the NHL postseason and the longest since the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Maroons needed 116:30 of extra time before the Red Wings won, 1-0, in the Stanley Cup semifinal in 1936.  Pittsburgh went on to win the 1996 series against the Caps in six games, three of the Caps’ losses coming on home ice, two of them (including the series-clincher) by one goal, one of them that four-overtime gut punch.

The other instance in 2003 featured a multi-overtime game that was all-too-similar to the 1996 marathon against the Penguins.  The Caps and Lightning had already played an overtime game on the MCI Center ice sheet, the Lightning winning Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, 4-3, less than three minutes into overtime after the Caps tied the game, 3-3, late in regulation on a goal by Brendan Witt.  The Lightning won Game 4 at MCI Center and then Game 5 in Tampa before returning to Washington for Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead.  On Easter Sunday, April 20th, the Caps once more took a lead into the third period.  And once more, they allowed a third period power play goal (this one by Dave Andreychuk) to tie the game late in regulation.  The teams fought to a draw through two overtimes, but early in the third period, Jason Doig was a bit too eager to get onto the ice  and into the play before a teammate got off, and the Capitals were hit with a too-many-men penalty.  Martin St. Louis ended the game, the series, and the Caps’ season 4:03 into the third overtime.

There might be an extra-time game lurking in this series in which the Caps have opened with two wins on the road.  If this team is different, and they are presented with such a test, it would serve them well to write a different chapter in the team’s history in such games, one that does not involve failing to hold a third period lead, allowing a power play goal to tie the game in regulation, and then losing deep into overtime on another power play.  Tend to business, close them down, wrap things up.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Eastern Conference Final -- Game 2: Washington Capitals 6 - Tampa Bay Lightning 2

The Washington Capitals completed their mission on Sunday night, sweeping Games 1 and 2 in Tampa after a 6-2 win at Amalie Arena.  The Caps broke on top, fell behind, and then they scored five unanswered goals to secure the victory.

First Period

The Caps have had hot starts in games in this postseason, but tonight started with…wait for it…a clap of thunder.  Matt Niskanen threw a shot at the net in the first minute, and Tom Wilson redirected it past goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to give the Caps a 1-0 lead just 28 seconds into the contest.

Then, the Caps ran afoul of the officials.  Two penalties midway through the frame caused problems.  One could argue that neither penalty had merit, but they were called, and Tampa Bay made the Caps pay.  After a Tom Wilson goalie interference call that was iffy (was he pushed into the goaltender?), Brayden Point got the Bolts even when he swatted a rebound of a Steven Stamkos one-timer past goalie Braden Holtby, and the game was tied at the 7:08 mark.

After a clearly bad call on T.J. Oshie for high-sticking Victor Hedman (replay showed it was the puck, not Oshie’s stick, that clipped Hedman in the head), Stamkos finished off some slick side-to-side passing by cashing in on a one-timer to give the Bolts a 2-1 lead 10:22 into the period.  That would end the scoring in the first 20 minutes.

Second Period

It might have been the most “Capital” of Capitals goals in this postseason that could end up being the pivotal mark of this series, should Washington go on to win.  In the third minute, Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelly broke into the offensive zone on a 2-on-1 rush.  Chiasson held the puck into the right wing circle, and then he went all “Nicklas Backstrom,” saucering a pass across to Smith-Pelly, who fired a laser to the far side of Vasilevskiy, off the post, and in to make it 2-2, 2:50 into the period.

The Caps struck twice late in the frame to take the game by the throat.  Lars Eller converted a goal-mouth feed from Jakub Vrana with just 1:02 left in the period.  Then, with the Caps on a power play in the dying seconds, Evgeny Kuznetsov fired a shot from the goal line extended to Vasilevskiy’s left, the puck hitting the goalie’s skate and trickling in with 2.6 seconds left in the period to send the teams to the locker room with the Caps ahead, 4-2.

Third Period

The Caps drove a spike into the hearts of the Lightning early in the period when the Caps had another 2-on-1 break.  This time it was Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin, Kuznetsov laying out a pass for an Ovechkin one-timer from the left wing circle that Vasilevskiy could only wave at as the red light went on again, the Caps up by a 5-2 margin 3:34 into the third period.

Brett Connolly ended the scoring midway through the period when he jumped into the offensive zone as the third man in, took a feed from Lars Eller, and swept a shot past defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and over Vasilevskiy’s blocker to make it 6-2, 12:57 into the period.  The stand emptied, the Caps skated off the clock, and the team was on their way home for Games 3 and 4 after sweeping a pair in Florida.

Other stuff…

-- Ovechkin’s goal was his tenth of the postseason, making him the third player to reach double digits (Mark Scheifele has 12; Jake Guentzel has 10).

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov had three points (1-2-3), and Ovechkin had two (1-1-2), giving both 19 points in the postseason, tied for fourth overall.

-- Tom Wilson had a goal and an assist.  It was his third career multi-point game in the postseason, all of them on the road (at Toronto and at Columbus being the other venues).

-- Lars Eller had a three-point game (goal, two assists), his second three-point game of the postseason (he had a three-assist game against Pittsburgh in the second round) and second of his career.

-- John Carlson had a pair of assists, bringing his postseason point total to 14.  Only Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien has more (15) among defensemen.

-- Sixteen of 18 skaters finished as “plus” players for the Caps.  Only Andre Burakovsky and Chandler Stephenson failed to put a plus on the ledger (both were “even”).

-- Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik rolled a pair of sixes.  Both finished with six credited hits.

-- Odd that the defense would lead the way in shots, but Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson had five apiece to lead the team.  As a group, the defense had 16 of 37 shots.

-- This was the ninth time in 14 postseason games that the Caps allowed an opponent four or more power plays.  It was their sixth win in such games.  Still, three of the four Caps losses have come in such games, and it does point to a need to stay disciplined.

-- Almost lost in the noise was Braden Holtby stopping all 26 even strength shots he faced, bringing his even strength save percentage in the postseason to .936, third-best among goalies appearing in at least five games.

In the end…

It would have been hard to script a better game, start to finish.  The Caps scored first and early, they weathered a couple of iffy calls (one of them an outright wrong call), and then closed with a rush.  In doing so, six different players accounted for the six goals, and Braden Holtby was impenetrable at even strength.

The thing is, though, one bounce can change momentum and a series.  What would we be talking about tonight if a Tom Kuhnhackl shot hits a pipe and caroms in, instead of out, in overtime of Game 6 against the Penguins?  But this Caps team has tended to business diligently in this postseason, and one gets the impression that if this series is to change, it would have to be more by Tampa Bay ramping up its game than the Caps succumbing to a bad break.  Who would have thought we would be typing that sentence in May?

Friday, May 11, 2018

Eastern Conference Final -- Game 1: Washington Capitals 4 - Tampa Bay Lightning 2

The Washington Capitals opened their Eastern Conference final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning on a positive note, scoring a pair of goals in each of the first two periods, and then closing out the Lightning, 4-2, at Amalie Arena in Tampa.  It was a night on which a top player was absent, but an absence filled by solid performances from several players.

First Period

The teams went through their early-game feeling out period, but it didn’t last all that long.  The Capitals opened the scoring in the eighth minute when Michal Kempny collected the puck at the left point, adjusted his position for a better shooting lane, and then snapped a shot that sailed past the combined screens of Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin, past goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and into the top corner of the net to give the Caps a 1-0 lead.

That might have been it for the scoring but for a bizarre last ten seconds of the period.  With the Lightning on a power play, it appeared as if they tied the game on a goal Nikita Kucherov, but the goal was disallowed for a too-many-men penalty with eight seconds left in the frame.  On the ensuing faceoff to Vasilevskiy’s left, T.J. Oshie won the draw to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who fed the puck across to Alex Ovechkin in the middle.  Ovechkin one-timed the puck past Vasilevskiy, and the Caps were up, 2-0, with 2.9 seconds left in the period

Numbers not to like in the first period…

  • The Caps had 11 blocked shots.  Makes that two shots on goal allowed a little less impressive in a shot attempts context.
  • Capitals not named “Beagle” were 4-for-15 on faceoffs

Second Period

The Lightning might be forgiven for being a bit shell-shocked after the events at the end of the first period, and they seemed to be in a daze when the second period opened.  The Caps took advantage of sluggish defense and a bit of luck when Dmitry Orlov did his little shake-and-bake move at the top of the right wing circle to give himself some open ice.  He fed the puck low to Brett Connolly, who shanked a shot from low in the left wing circle.  The puck slid slowly through to the crease where Jay Beagle backhanded it under the left pad of Vasilevskiy, and the Caps were up, 3-0, just 2:40 into the period.

Barely four minutes later, the Caps added another goal.  With the Caps back on a power play, the Caps worked the puck clockwise around the top of the offensive zone, from Kuznetsov to John Carlson to Ovechkin in the left wing circle.  Ovechkin’s one-timer was muffled, but the puck leaked out to the top of the crease where Lars Eller pounced, swatting the puck past a diving Vasilevskiy, and it was 4-0, 6:42 into the period.

That is where the teams ended after 40 minutes.

Third Period

Louis Domingue took over in the Lightning net for the final 20 minutes, but the danger in any game like this for the team getting out to the big lead is taking their foot off the gas.  Washington fell into the trap.  Tampa Bay dominated and converted a power play 3:45 into the period, Steven Stamkos pinching down the weak side and one-timing a feed from Nikita Kucherov behind goalie Braden Holtby to make it 4-1.

Tampa made things interesting less than ten minutes later when Ondrej Palat skated down the left side and snapped a shot past Holtby on the short side inside the post, pulling the Caps within 4-2 at the 13:03 mark.

That would be as close as the Lightning could get, though, and the Caps erased the Tampa Bay home ice advantage with a 4-2 Game 1 win.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps have not lacked for offense in the postseason.  This was the eighth time in 13 games that they recorded four or more goals.

-- Nicklas Backstrom was held out of this game with his upper-body injury, and the other top scorers filled the gap.  Alex Ovechkin (goal, assist), T.J. Oshie (two assists), and Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) were the multiple point getters for the Caps.

-- Michal Kempny’s goal was his first career playoff goal and his first point in the postseason since he recorded an assist (his first NHL career playoff point) in a 4-3 Caps win in Game 5 against Columbus in the first round.

-- The Caps got points from three defensemen – Kempny (goal), Dmitry Orlov (assist) and John Carlson (assist).

-- Carlson’s assist was his 12th point of the postseason, tying the franchise record for defensemen in a postseason (Kevin Hatcher and Scott Stevens in 1988 and Carlson in 2016).

-- Alex Chiasson took two penalties, the first two he has taken in the postseason.

-- Anybody have Jakub Vrana leading the team with five shots on goal?  Anybody?

-- After a rather grisly first period in the faceoff circle in which the Caps went 7-for-18 (38.9 percent), they went 20-for-32 (62.5 percent) over the last 40 minutes.

-- When the Lighting replaced starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy with Louis Domingue to start the third period, it marked the first time in the postseason that the Caps chased a starting goaltender.

-- Tampa Bay allowed a power play goal (two, in fact) for the eighth time in 11 postseason games.

In the end…

There are two bedrock ideas to take away from this game.  First, it is a 60 minute game, and while the Caps were utterly dominant in the first 40 minutes (aided by a brain lock by Tampa Bay to find themselves with too many men on the ice to negate a tying goal late in the first period), they took their foot off the gas in the third period.  That made for a more interesting game than folks might have thought would be the case after those first 40 minutes.  It should not be forgotten.

The other thing is, it is “first to four,” not “first to one.”  This is a game to build on, not savor.  There are things to correct, and there is much work yet to be done.  After all, Tampa Bay did drop Game 1 against Boston in the first round and roared back to sweep the next four contests. The Caps did dominate in a way that Boston did not in that second round Game 1, but Tampa remains a formidable obstacle to the Caps’ ambition.

But the Caps did do what they had to do – overcome the absence of Nicklas Backstrom to put together a fine overall effort and take the home ice advantage from the Lightning.  Not that such an advantage means much, but it is a win on the road to four that the Lightning do not have.  And that was the object of tonight’s exercise.