The Washington Capitals reeled off five unanswered goals to erase a 2-1 first period deficit to knock off the
Tampa Bay Lightning, 6-2, in game two of the Eastern Conference Final and the Caps will head home to the DMV with a 2-0 series lead.
Tom Wilson put the Capitals on the board just 28 seconds into this affair by tipping home a Matt Niskanen point blast. Washington came out fast and furious when the Bolts were supposed to be the more desperate team and they had some chances to increase their lead. On a rush to the Tampa net at the 6:48 mark, Wilson skated hard to the cage hoping for a back door pass, was hooked by Chris Kunitz and then spun around by Ryan McDonagh and crashed into goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and the goal frame. Referee Dan O’Halloran, who the Capitals were 0-6 lifetime as a zebra in the playoffs coming into this affair, ignored the Kunitz hook and McDonagh contact and instead called Willy for goalie interference. Tampa needed all of 20 seconds to tie it up on a Brayden Point shot.
Sure, that call on Wilson could’ve gone either way, and there are valid arguments on both sides, but then something happened that should never occur in a playoff game of this magnitude. Victor Hedman was hit in the face by a puck and T.J. Oshie, who put his stick up to try and get the biscuit, but never came close to contacting Hedman’s upper body, was boxed for a phantom high sticking penalty. How does that happen with two referees and two linesmen? Surely one of them had to see it was not high sticking? Anyways, that was a bad call, for sure, and Steven Stamkos scored back door late in that power play to give the Bolts a 2-1 lead at 10:22 that they certainly didn’t deserve.
At that point, it was really important how the Capitals players and coaches would react. Would they lose their minds and get caught up in the incompetent O’Halloran officiating or would they remain calm, stick to their game plan, and focus on getting even on the scoreboard?
Judging by the last 49 plus minutes, it was clearly the latter. Even in the final nine minutes of period one, the Capitals pushed the play and had several scoring chances drawing extensive praise from Mike Milbury on NBC and then Keith Jones and Eddie Olczyk between periods. Olczyk even disagreed with the call on Wilson, pointing out the missed hook on Kunitz on a scoring chance.
The Caps would not tie it up in period one, but the tone was set and early in period two they got even. John Carlson stole an errant Tampa pass and sprung Alex Chiasson, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Jay Beagle on a three on one rush. Chiasson fed DSP and Devante was able to one time home a puck that didn’t really settle on the ice for him. The biscuit hit the far post and went in behind Vasilevskiy to really give Washington a huge goal and momentum.
The remainder of the period was tense back and forth and the Caps were getting the better of the chances, but #88 was playing fairly well in the cage. At 15:48 of period two, Michal Kempny took an unnecessary interference penalty so the Tampa power play, which had scored three of the Bolts four goals in the series, had a chance to give the home squad the lead. Washington, however, would easily kill of the infraction and they immediately started pressing the Tampa defense again.
With just over a minute left in period two, Oshie went in on a fore check and forced Anton Stralman to turn the puck over. The speedy Jakub Vrana pounced on the loose disc and alertly fed a camped in front Lars Eller on the doorstep and #20 put the biscuit in the basket for a 3-2 Caps lead with 62 seconds to go in the middle frame. Speed kills, and Tampa was supposed to be the faster team, but a fresh Andre Burakovsky put massive pressure on the fore check on the Bolts and Vasilevskiy stuck his skate out and tripped #65 with 10 seconds remaining. Once again, the Capitals won a big offensive zone faceoff as Eller beat Tyler Johnson drawing the puck to Alex Ovechkin (1 goal, 1 assist) on the left wing boards. Ovi quickly wheeled it around the back boards to Evgeny Kuznetsov and with Eller crashing the cage, Kuzy fired on net from just above the goal line. The Bolts keeper was intent on stopping that pass to Lars, but Evgeny put a lot of mustard on it and it banked in off of his pads and into the cage for a 4-2 Washington lead with just three seconds left.
That last minute, like the last 10 seconds of period one on Friday night in game one, was a huge lift to the Caps and a major deflator for Tampa. However, there were still 20 minutes left and given how the Bolts responded with a strong third period in game one, the Capitals had to be careful and concerned.
It was Washington, however, that carried the even strength play in period three and just 3:34 into the final stanza they increased their lead to three pucks. Wilson made a great chip out past a pinching Braydon Coburn on the Bolts left wing boards getting the disc to Kuzy, who immediately recognized he had a two on one with Alexander the Great. When Stralman left his feet early to try and cut off the pass to Ovi, Kuzy skated in closer and slid the puck to Ovechkin backdoor. The Gr8 made no mistake about burying the super feed over Vasilevskiy’s outstretched pad.
At that point, only a Capitals turnover or penalty would allow Tampa to get back in the game and Kempny made another poor decision at 6:55 with a high cross check on Cedric Paquette in front of Braden Holtby. Washington, however, would do another stellar job on the PK and the Bolts found themselves constantly struggling to get through the maze of players the Caps had stacked in the neutral zone and on their own blue line. Time and time again the Bolts would rush up the ice and be swarmed by guys in white at the blue line. The result was lots of turnovers when Tampa didn’t dump the puck in. At 12:57, Washington would get yet another odd man rush and Eller fed a flying Brett Connolly in the high slot where #10 one timed it past the Bolts goaltender to make it 6-2. One of Connolly’s big strengths is his ability to get off a shot very quickly and his tally bit the hand that once fed him in Tampa.
This was a huge victory and in the series the Capitals are dominating the Bolts at even strength. Washington’s speedy forwards that include Burakovsky, Vrana, Kuzentsov, Eller, Chandler Stephenson, and Connolly are really forcing the Tampa defense into poor positioning and mistakes. In the series, the Caps have outscored the Lightning, 8-1, when the manpower is even.
The Caps are playing good defense and blocking a lot of shots, plus anything that gets through to Holtby (35 saves) is pretty much being stopped. Most of Tampa’s looks are coming from the perimeter while Washington is getting into the high danger scoring areas more often. Simply put, the Capitals have looked faster and fresher and getting both Burakovsky and Wilson back plus the emergence of Vrana and Stephenson have changed the offensive dynamic for Coach Barry Trotz. Nicklas Backstrom has yet to play in this series due to his injured right hand, but with Kuzy and Eller stepping up and then Stephenson centering a very good third line with Burkie and Connolly, this Caps team has a dangerous top nine. Everyone knew about the firepower of Ovechkin and Oshie, but the Capitals have pretty much everyone on those first three lines clicking on all cylinders. Add in some fourth line goals (Beagle in game one and DSP in game two) and it’s easy to see why the Caps are up in this series.
On the back end, all six defensemen are doing a great job of making solid breakout passes. There have been some hiccups, most notably a turnover by Niskanen that led to Johnson hitting the post when the game was tied in period two, but overall the pass out of the zone is allowing Washington to move into the Tampa end with speed and put a not so fast D that includes Dan Girardi, Coburn, and McDonagh on their heels. Dmitry Orlov has been sensational with his ability to turn defense into offense for the Capitals.
Add in some clutch goaltending and you can see why this series is at two games to nil.
But the series is not over until one team gets to four wins and Washington must stick to the script at home and play the same way they’ve done in amassing a 7-1 road record in this 2018 post season. The Caps can’t try to impress their fans with over passing and fancy plays. They must adhere to a game plan that is hard on the puck, swarms the Bolts in all zones, and is focused on north-south hockey. The cross ice passes, especially at the offensive blue line, are the ones Washington must keep out of their arsenal because the Bolts feast on odd man rushes. Finally, staying out of the box is paramount. O’Halloran and Brad Meier had a poor first period and it was nearly costly for the Caps. Even strength play has been good for the Capitals so far in this series, so it’s to their advantage to keep it that way.
Notes: Carlson had two assists and led the Caps in ice time with 25:01. Niskanen logged 23:10 and Orlov played 22:44…the Caps were one for three on the power play while Tampa went two for four…the face off edge went to the Lightning, 36-28, but the Capitals won that huge draw late in period two on the power play. Beagle was 11-7 and Eller went 10-9 from the dot…Orpik and Wilson each had six hits while Ovechkin had five…game three is Tuesday at 8 pm from Capital One Arena.