Lover, I’m off the streets
I’m gonna go where the bright lights
And the big city meet
With a red guitar, on fire
There has never been a more appropriate time where those great song lyrics from U2 have rung more true for how a Washington Capitals team played in a critical game during the Alexander Ovechkin era.
T.J. Oshie scored a second period power play goal and an empty net tally sandwiched around a huge third period marker from Devante Smith-Pelly while Braden Holtby shutout the Tampa Bay Lightning making 24 saves in the process. The 3-0 must win for the Caps in game six now forces a game seven at Amalie Arena on Wednesday night at 8 pm.
In a 3-2 game five loss on Saturday night, the Capitals did not come out of the gate well, at all, and found themselves down 3-0 in the first 21 minutes. As I wrote in my post game blog, the Caps did not display enough will to conquer the little battles necessary to win the game. Washington had the skill, but they did not exhibit the will and Tampa certainly did in their triumph.
On Monday night, there was no doubt about the will as the Capitals were relentless on the puck and won numerous board battles doling out 39 often vicious body checks in the process. Simply put, every player on the Caps roster from the Holtbeast on out brought a maximum effort. Oshie stated afterwards that Washington didn’t play with desperation; rather it was more of “a direct urgency.” The Osh Babe was spot on as this Capitals team checked as well as they have in any playoff game and it was their physicality and desire that won them a chance to play for a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday.
Tampa had won three straight tilts coming into this affair and had a lot of momentum. They also had won seven straight playoff games on the Caps home ice. Washington was determined to change that and after a scoreless first frame where both teams kind of felt each other out, the Capitals kicked up their intensity. The middle stanza didn’t start well for Washington as Jay Beagle was called for hooking just 40 seconds into the period putting the Bolts deadly power play on the ice. The Caps, however, were up to the task and allowed on only a single Lightning shot on net during the man advantage.
The strong penalty kill gave Washington an emotional boost and they started taking the play to the Bolts. The Capitals would out shot attempt Tampa, 27-22, in the second period, but it wasn’t until Braydon Coburn took a hooking penalty on Smith-Pelly as #25 was charging to the net after a Washington face off win that a red light would finally go on. The Caps power play, which went 0 for 4 in a tough game four loss and had no attempts in game five, clicked putting four shots on Andrei Vasilevskiy before the fifth one from #77 beat the big goalie at 15:12. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov provided the assists on Oshie’s sixth tally of the post season, which came from the slot in between the four Bolts penalty killers.
The first goal, at that point in the game, loomed large because both teams had shown that once they were ahead in contests in this series that they were very good at walling off the front of their own net and very effective at counter attacking their opponents. Tampa, once behind, began having their defensemen pinch down on the wall in the offensive zone in an attempt to get the equalizer. They were nearly effective at it and the Caps were fortunate that the Bolts hit the left post in the dying seconds of period two.
For the first seven minutes or so of the final stanza, the Bolts really put the pressure on and the Capitals appeared to be hanging on as evidenced by the numerous icings they were guilty of committing. At the eight minute mark, Lars Eller fired a shot on #88 and the Caps earned an offensive zone face off. That seemed to steady the ship and just two minutes later it was 2-0 when Beagle and Chandler Stephenson out hustled and out worked the Bolts defense. Stephenson would get the puck below the goal line and feed Smith-Pelly all alone in the slot for a goal that would put Capital One Arena in bedlam. That newly formed line, which had the task of facing the Tampa very productive trio of Chris Kunitz, Cedric Pauquette, and Ryan Callahan, was a big reason that Washington was triumphant.
Backstrom then took a tripping penalty at 11:03 and suddenly the Bolts appeared to have life with the chance to get within one with their outstanding power play. Holtby would make three saves and Tom Wilson and Beagle had a monster shift to prevent Tampa from getting into the zone over the last 30 plus seconds of man advantage time. The home crowd gave the Capitals penalty killing unit a standing ovation and the massive amount of noise and energy propelled the Caps down the stretch as they continued to be physical and win the important battles. Oshie then hit the empty net with 50 seconds remaining to seal the deal.
This was one tight checking and intense hockey game and the Capitals arguably performed the best they have all postseason, at least from a defensive standpoint. They put 34 shots on net, 33 of which were against Vasilevskiy, but the Bolts goaltender played very well, once again. DSP’s tally, though, was critical to give the Caps some margin of error over the last 10 minutes and the way Holtby was going at his end, something crazy would’ve had to happen for Tampa to tie this one up. Washington was extremely committed to playing the body and winning board battles in all three zones, especially in the last 40 minutes.
So now Ovechkin, Backstrom, Beagle, Holtby, and the rest of the Capitals have a chance to advance where they’ve never been before. Tampa will have home ice advantage, they are the favorites being the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and many of their players have been to the Stanley Cup Final before. The Bolts had hoped to close out the Caps in DC, but like in 2016 when they couldn’t beat the Penguins in game six and the series evened up, they’ll be going home to face Washington in a do or die game seven. That season Pittsburgh prevailed and went on to win the Stanley Cup over the San Jose Sharks. There will be lots of pressure on the Lightning to not do that again. As for the Capitals, they definitely cleared their minds of any negative thoughts prior to game six forgetting their three game losing streak as they turned in a gem on Monday night. They’ll need another game like that to knock off a very talented squad coached by Jon Cooper.
For once, Washington does not have home ice advantage and will not have the last line change that Coach Barry Trotz used so effectively to keep the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson line away from the Kunitz-Paquette-Callahan trio in game six. However, the Capitals can just fly in to Florida on Tuesday and focus on a hockey game. They won’t have friends and family bugging them for tickets and they won’t have a tense home crowd on hand. In game six, the Capitals fans were very supportive and helped bring energy, there was no apprehension. It was very much needed and the Caps took advantage of the environment in the victory.
Now they have to do it again on the road by finding a way to knock off a very good and favored Bolts squad. The key is winning the little battles that hopefully result in a lead in the hockey game that they can build upon.
And the fever, gettin’ higher
Notes: John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:17. Matt Niskanen logged 24:12. Victor Hedman led the Bolts in ice time with 24:07…the Caps had 39 hits to just 19 for Tampa. Brooks Orpik and Wilson each had six hits and Smith-Pelly had five…the Capitals won the face off battle, 33-28. Beagle was 13-3 and Eller went 12-6…Backstrom had two assists and appears to be getting more power on his passes and shots following his hand injury…Andre Burakovsky replaced Alex Chiasson in the lineup and had a strong 7:31 of work. He nearly scored on a one on one rush in period two, but shot over the net…Kuznetsov was 1-11 on faceoffs and lost a lot of first period board battles. If the Caps are going to win game seven, he has to find a way to not turn the puck over, he had two giveaways, both in period one.