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May 12, 2018
Get Started, Start A Fire – There was no second-round hangover for the Capitals in the aftermath of their cathartic series win over Pittsburgh early this week. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final on Friday night in Tampa, the Caps were assertive in jumping out to an early lead, widening it and maintaining it. By the end of Friday’s series opener against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena, the Caps were on the right side of a 4-2 final score and owners of a 1-0 series lead for the first time in their last four postseason sets.  

Michal Kempny’s first-period goal staked the Caps to an early lead in Friday’s Game 1, marking the 11 thtime Washington has scored the game’s first goal in 13 playoff games this spring. The Caps have outscored the opposition by a total of 14-3 in the first period of games in the 2018 playoffs. 

Washington scored twice in the first and twice early in the second to take a commanding 4-0 lead. At the end of the first frame, the Lightning had as many shots on net (two) as the Caps had goals. Washington was stingy in is own end, as it has been throughout the playoffs.

“Decent start,” says Lightning coach Jon Cooper, “but you could tell right away. You looked up at the clock – and we had a lot of [offensive] zone time – but we didn’t have a shot on goal.” 

Tampa missed some shot opportunities early, when they game was still scoreless, but in the first period Caps’ defenders put on a clinic in getting stick on puck to thwart Tampa Bay’s attack. The Lightning teed up 18 shot tries in the first period, but the Caps blocked 11 of them, and only two shots got through to Caps goalie Braden Holtby.

To this point in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Lightning is the top possession team of the 16 entrants, controlling 53.6% of shot attempts at five-on-five. But it was the Caps that dominated possession in the first 40 minutes of Game 1. 

Washington was responsible for 58% of the five-on-five shot attempts in the first 40 minutes of the series opener, and it scored twice at five-on-five and twice with the man advantage to put the Bolts into a hole early. 

“It comes down to managing the puck and where it goes,” says Cooper. “If you’re just going to keep giving it to them, it’s going to hurt your chances to have success. You can play the perfect game and execute your plan and do all of that stuff and still not win, but at least you’re giving yourself a good chance to win. But when you do this, you’re giving yourself basically zero chance to win.” 

Credit to the Capitals, too. They didn’t wade into this game or this series by any means and they generated more in the way of high quality scoring chances and looks at the opposition net. Simply put, the Caps were the better team on both sides of special teams, at five-on-five, and in all three zones in Game 1.

“I think at five-on-five we have lots of opportunities,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “All four lines played in the first period – I think – very good. Don’t give different opponents a chance to create something in our zone, and in the neutral zone as well. We want to do the same next game as well, and through the whole series.” 

Centers Of Attention – With Nicklas Backstrom missing a second straight playoff game because of an upper body injury, Caps centers have had to pick up the slack. All three Washington centers have scored in the two games without Backstrom – with Evgeny Kuznetsov’s series-clinching overtime game-winner in Pittsburgh on Monday standing out most prominently. 

But with the Caps up 2-0 heading to the second period of Game 1, Caps centers Jay Beagle and Lars Eller scored in the front half of the middle period to double Washington’s lead. The production was welcome and those two goals were ultimately the difference in the game, but Beagle and Eller delivered more than just production in Friday’s game, as did fellow pivots Evgeny Kuznetsov and Chandler Stephenson.

In addition to supplying the game-winning goal, Beagle won nine of his 11 face-offs on the night. Eller scored an insurance goal on the power play in the second period, filled in for Backstrom on the first unit power play, and logged 20:35 on the night in ice time, the most of any forward on either side. Kuznetsov supplied the primary helper on each of the Caps’ first two goals of the game and Stephenson’s line gave the Caps a dozen clean minutes at five-on-five.  

Ideally, the Caps will have Backstrom back soon and will be back at full strength, but their ability to survive – and sometimes thrive – in his absence is impressive.

“Depth,” says Beagle. “It’s something that we’ve had here ever since I’ve been here, really. It’s something that the organization takes pride on. Whoever needs to step in and replace [someone for] either an injury or we had a suspension, the guys step up.”

Secondary Stuff – Scoring a couple of power play goals is usually a positive indicator in Stanley Cup playoff hockey, but when you also get a couple of goals worth of secondary scoring at five-on-five from a defenseman and a fourth-liner, you’re virtually unbeatable.

Kempny and Beagle supplemented power-play goals from Ovechkin and Eller in Washington’s opening night win, giving the Caps at least two five-on-five goals for the 10 thtime in their last 11 games this spring. Kempny joins Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen as the third Caps defenseman to light the lamp in the playoffs. Orlov’s goal came against Columbus, Niskanen’s against Pittsburgh. 

Washington is now 41-1-5 in regular season games in which Beagle scores a goal, and it is 5-3 – with two of the losses coming in overtime – when he does so in the postseason.  

Power Surge – Washington has scored at least one power-play goal in 11 of its 13 playoff games this spring, and it has scored multiple power-play goals in three of those games. The Caps have recorded a franchise-record 15 power-play goals in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, and their 32.6% efficiency rate with the extra man is second best among the 16 playoff teams.

Great Eight – For the first time in his NHL career, Ovechkin has now scored a playoff goal against three different opponents in the same playoff year. He scored on a Washington power play in the waning seconds of the first frame, his ninth goal of the postseason. It’s the second most goals he has scored in a playoff season; he netted 11 (and totaled 21 points) in 14 games in 2009. 

With four power-play goals in the playoffs, Ovechkin is tied with teammate T.J. Oshie and Nashville’s P.K. Subban for the league lead. 

Tangled Up In Blue – Too many Lightning sweaters on the ice led to a strange and interesting sequence at the end of the first period. We frequently see “two-goal swings” games, but it usually occurs when there is a great save at one end of the ice followed swiftly thereafter by a goal at the other end.

What’s far less common is what we witnessed in the waning seconds of the first when the Lightning appeared to have tied the game on a Nikita Kucherov rush goal. The building erupted, but the crowd’s celebration was short-lived. The Lightning had too many men on the ice, and not only did the goal – with just 7.1 seconds left in the period – not count, but the Caps were headed to the power play with their 1-0 lead.

Most in the building probably figured the Caps would while away the seven seconds and have the benefit of nearly a full two minutes with the extra man on a fresh sheet of ice to start the third. But that’s not how it went down.

Oshie won a right dot draw to Kuznetsov on the half wall, and he urgently teed it up for an Ovechkin one-timer from the high slot. The captain’s blast eluded Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy on the glove side with the clock showing 2.9 seconds. In less than five seconds of playing time, what briefly looked like a 1-1 game was suddenly 2-0 in the Caps’ favor, and those goals against in the last ticks of a period always seem to draw just a bit more blood. 

“I think it’s just effort,” says Ovechkin. “We try to play to the end. The situation is, we win the face-off and we make the right decisions, we make the right play. It started with Osh, and finished up by Lars [Eller, in front of the net] and Kuzy and me.”  

Road Killers – The Caps continued their remarkable road run on Friday, winning for the sixth time in seven road games in the postseason. Including the last five games of the regular season, Washington has now won 11 of its last 12 road games, a run that began in Detroit on March 22.

“I think simple, just keeping it simple,” says Beagle. “Sometimes at home you think you’ve got to make an extra play or there is a little bit more pressure on you. I think when you come into a building and you’re playing that simple, hard, north road game, I think that’s what’s made us have the success that we’ve had, and we have to obviously carry that over into Game 2.”

By The Numbers – Matt Niskanen led the Caps with 25:48 in ice time … Jakub Vrana led Washington with five shots on net …Ovechkin led the Capitals with seven shot attempts …  Brooks Orpik led the Caps with five hits … Niskanen and John Carlson led the Caps with three blocked shots each … Friday’s win ends a streak of eight straight Tampa Bay wins over Washington in the playoffs, a run that dates back 15 springs.