Late in the second period of Monday’s game against the Lightning in Tampa, the Caps seemed to be in decent shape. They owned a two-goal lead at 3-1, and their goaltender Philipp Grubauer was playing extremely well. Two-goal leads that late in games have generally been a lockdown situation for Washington since Barry Trotz took over behind the bench three years ago, but the Caps let tonight’s lead – and ultimately, the game – slip through their fingers.
Chris Kunitz’s goal in the final two minutes of the second brought the Lightning within one, and then Nikita Kucherov forced overtime with a nifty backhander to the top shelf in the third period.
Brayden Point deflected Kucherov’s shot from the left circle on a power play in overtime to seal the Caps’ fate in a 4-3 overtime loss. The Caps have Grubauer (37 saves) to thank for the one point they did pick up on Monday. Grubauer was brilliant in his first start of the season, and he deserved a much better fate.
“We had a couple of chances to make it 4-1,” says Trotz. “We didn’t. They just chipped away, and there was too much time on the clock against a very good, explosive hockey team.”
A pair of bench minors for too many men on the ice – one in the third and the other in overtime – also hurt Washington. Kucherov’s game-winner came with just 14 seconds remaining on a four-on-three power play in overtime, the first power-play goal the Caps have surrendered in the young season.
“After we scored that 3-1 goal,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, “we stopped working as a team as good as we did in the first and the second. Obviously they’re a good, skilled team and you have to play as good you can against these guys. You can’t let them have any space out there, because then they’re going to score.
“We should have had this game. After 3-1, we should have just shut them down.”
Washington got on the board first, scoring a rush goal with all three forwards on the Backstrom line contributing to the play, and Backstrom himself supplying the finish. Taylor Chorney started the play from behind the Washington net, sending T.J. Oshie into Tampa ice with a breakout pass. Andre Burakovsky made a nice cross-ice feed to Backstrom, a left-hand shot coming down the right side. Backstrom slipped a shot past Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy on the short side for a 1-0 Washington lead at 16:42 of the first.
Less than two minutes later, the Caps doubled their lead on their first power play opportunity of the night. Oshie got a piece of John Carlson’s shot from center point, giving Washington a two-goal lead at 18:05 of the first. The Caps took that lead into the second period.
The Lightning cut into the Washington advantage with a transition goal at 5:28 of the second. A Caps turnover in neutral ice sprung the Bolts back into the Washington zone, and Alex Killorn’s shot from the high slot beat Grubauer high to the glove side, making it a 2-1 game.
Just as it seemed as though the Lightning was on the verge of seizing momentum, the Caps struck on another power play, with Oshie again lighting the lamp. This time, it was a hard one-timer from high in the diamond area, a goal that restored Washington’s two-goal lead at 7:49 of the second.
But the Caps weren’t able to nurse that two-goal cushion to the second intermission. With 1:51 left in the middle stanza, veteran Lightning newcomer Chris Kunitz got a piece of an Anton Stralman drive from the point, making it a 3-2 game going into the third.
Washington drew a power play with 13.9 seconds left in the second, but was unable to cash in on what would be its final man advantage opportunity of the evening.
It was all Lightning in the third and into overtime, and the Caps’ weary blueline brigade spent a great deal of the frame struggling to break the puck out of its own end. Tampa had all of the jump, and the Caps looked tired, a circumstance that may have led to the pair of too many men on the ice calls. Only Grubauer's stellar netminding display kept the Caps from losing in regulation.
The first of those calls came at 3:28 of the third, and for the next two minutes, the Caps were continually under siege in their end, all while Grubauer was spectacular. Tampa Bay fired 11 shots in his direction over those two minutes; Grubauer stopped seven of them, one shot was blocked, and three missed the mark.
Washington managed to white-knuckle its way through most of the third period, occasionally taking a rare foray into the Tampa Bay zone. But the Lightning is too talented a team to sit back against, and eventually it made the Capitals pay.
Just past the midway mark of the third, Kucherov carved into Washington ice in a one-on-one situation with Chorney defending. Kucherov protected the puck and slipped a backhander high to the short side, above Grubauer’s left shoulder at 10:46, making it a 3-3 game.
Grubauer kept the Bolts at bay until the end of the third, enabling the Caps to claim a point. But a poor change between Carlson and Dmitry Orlov in the extra session put Washington into a difficult situation with 3:39 left, facing a three-on-four manpower disadvantage.
That set the stage for Kucherov and Point to team up on the game-winner, Tampa Bay’s third unanswered goal of the game. From the time the Caps’ final power play was snuffed out early in the third until Point’s game-winner, the Lightning owned a lopsided 41-16 lead in shot attempts.
“We didn’t do a great job of playing 200-foot hockey,” says Oshie. “Once we got the lead, it’s almost like we sat back and played a little too passive. And they came after us; they did a great job. They had a good momentum shift over there, and Grubi held them off for as long as he could there. He had a great night, it’s tough not to get the win there.”
Trotz saw it a little more charitably, though he was not pleased at all with his team squandering a two-goal lead. But four nights ago in Ottawa, the Caps rallied from a two-goal deficit of their own to claim a shootout victory over the Senators in the season opener.
“We were down 3-1 in Ottawa, and we came back and won,” notes Trotz. “So it was maybe a little bit of a payback. The hockey gods evened things up.”