The Caps broke on top, fell behind, and then they scored five unanswered goals to secure the victory.
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.
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.
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.
-- 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?