Five seconds isn’t much time in a hockey game, and the waning seconds of the first period is still relatively early in a contest. But a span of less than five seconds late in the first frame of Friday’s Game 1 between the Caps and the Tampa Bay Lightning effected a two-goal swing on the scoreboard, helping to propel Washington to a 4-2 victory over the Bolts in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final.
With Washington leading 1-0 in the waning seconds of the first thanks to a well-placed Michal Kempny point shot earlier in the period, Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov got loose in neutral ice and took a Ryan Callahan springing feed into Washington ice with Matt Niskanen in close pursuit. Somehow, Kucherov managed to get a shot off, and somehow, he managed to get it behind Caps goalie Braden Holtby.
To the sellout crowd at Amalie Arena, it sure seemed as though the Lightning had tied the game with 7.1 seconds on the clock. But there were one too many blue sweaters on the ice, and none of them was even in the same zip code as the Tampa Bay bench.
Instead of being a 1-1 game, the goal didn’t count, and the Lightning – owners of the worst penalty-killing outfit of the 16 postseason entrants in 2018 – went down a man for the first time in the series. The crowd was suddenly deflated, but the worst of it was still ahead.
T.J. Oshie won the ensuing right dot draw in the offensive zone, and Evgeny Kuznetsov bumped the puck to Alex Ovechkin, who was locked and loaded in the high slot. Ovechkin’s one-timer beat Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy on the glove side with just 2.9 seconds left in the first, doubling the Caps’ lead to 2-0.
“It’s a play that we scouted,” says Tampa Bay winger Alex Killorn. “We know it’s a play that they do. It just happened so quickly that it’s kind of tough to get body position, especially when [Lars] Eller is
Instead of a 1-1 game after 20 minutes, the Caps were able to take a two-goal lead to the room at first intermission. And instead of Washington stewing all intermission over giving up a goal in the waning seconds of a period, that distinction belonged to the Bolts. Tampa Bay’s travails were compounded by the fact that the Lightning managed only two shots on the Washington net in the first frame.
“It’s important,” says Oshie. “I think anytime you score in the last minute of the period, it can be deflating to the tam that gets scored on, because you have to come into [the locker room] and watch the clock for 15 minutes and think about that goal that just went in, that you wish you would have prevented.
“Just as important as getting that goal, I think the start to our second period to follow it up was just as important.”
The Caps came out in the second period and put a chokehold on the contest. Jay Beagle made it a 3-0 game at 2:40 of the second. Dmitry Orlov deftly shook off a defender high in the Tampa Bay zone, carving out some time and space for himself between the circles. He teed it up for Brett Connolly, whose one-timer was stopped by Vasilevskiy. But Beagle was right there for the rebound, and he put it through the five-hole to give the Caps a three-goal cushion.
When Kucherov was busted for roughing Andre Burakovsky a few minutes later, the Caps opened up a 4-0 lead on the power play. All five Caps skaters touched the puck; it went from Kuznetsov on the right half wall to John Carlson at center point to Ovechkin in his office. Ovechkin drilled a one-timer on net, and Vasilevskiy made the stop, He got Oshie’s follow-up with his left pad, too, but was in no position to do anything about Eller, who potted the rebound of the Oshie shot into a yawning cage to make it a 4-0 game at 6:42.
Limited to just 10 shots on net in the game’s first 40 minutes, the Lightning cut into Washington’s advantage with a Steven Stamkos one-timer on the power play a 3:45 of the third. Ondrej Palat made it a 4-2 game with a sharp shot off the rush at 13:03, but the Caps managed the rest of the game well, denying the Lightning any sustained offensive zone time during Tampa Bay’s time with the extra attacker in the last couple minutes of the game.
Washington dominated the first 40 minutes of the game, and the Lightning’s late strikes didn’t provide any salve at night’s end.
“They were playing in the Eastern Conference final, and we were playing in game 38 [of the regular season],” says Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “That’s basically what it was.”
“They were sharp,” says Lightning winger Chris Kunitz of the Capitals. “They were the better team tonight. Obviously we’ve got to stay out of the box with the power play that they have. We have to be better. They played a great game, put us on our heels and they probably feel successful in their first two periods.”
For the first time in their last four playoff series, the Caps have a 1-0 lead.
“I liked our start,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “I thought we played with some quickness – quick, simple and smart. We were just making good decisions, we were not trying to force things, and when you do that, I think we’re a pretty good hockey team.”