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.