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.