Turnabout – Having dropped the first game of each of their previous two Stanley Cup series on home ice this spring, the Caps are happy to be up 1-0 over the Lightning in the Eastern Conference final after their 4-2 win over the Bolts on Friday night’s Game 1 of the series. Washington is also familiar with how the Bolts must be feeling going into Saturday’s Game 2.
“It’s nice to get a win in the first game,” says Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov. “But like I always say, for us it’s focus game by game. We have to play hard, we have to control the game and I don’t think we should think about what’s the score in the series.”
The Lightning is also familiar with this situation; it was down 1-0 to the Boston Bruins a game into its previous series, too. But the Bolts swept away the B’s in four straight after that 6-2 setback in Game 1 of the second round.
“We’ve been through this before a little bit,” says Lightning coach Jon Cooper, “but unlike the Game 1 against Boston where I thought we did a lot of good things and outchanced them and stuff like that, I didn’t think that was the case [Friday night] at all. [The Capitals] outplayed us, they outchanced us, they outscored us, they out-everythinged us, and this is the result you get.
“So we see what we can’t do and what we have to do, and we’ve got to get back to what got us to the conference final. We know that we’ve got better and we can bring that to the table, but now there is pressure on us to do it [Sunday].”
For Washington, Game 2 will be about meeting – or at least weathering – the expected pushback from the Lightning after Tampa’s uncharacteristic Game 1 performance. The Caps will also look to keep their foot on the gas and try to get greedy here and take another game in Florida.
“We had a heck of a start in Game 1,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, “and set ourselves up real nice. But it’s only good if you take advantage of it. So we have a heck of an opportunity going into Game 2. We’re going to have to play well again – and probably even a little better – because they’re going to have a big push – a response game – like most good teams do. It’s an opportunity to really take control here, but it’s early in the series, so we’re going to have to keep playing well.”
“Very simply, you have to let go of Game 1,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “And there is nothing wrong with being greedy at this time of year. Your focus has to be on getting to four [victories] as quick as you can.
“We have an opportunity tonight to try to do that. We know that Tampa Bay is going to bring their ‘A’ game tonight – they’re a high quality team. As I’ve said, they’ve got good leadership in their room, they’re well-coached and they’re going to have their ‘A’ game. We know that, and we’re going to have to have our ‘A’ game, too. I want us to be greedy.”
Cooper was asked on Sunday morning whether the Lightning would be making any personnel changes for Sunday’s Game 2.
“Uh, no,” was Cooper’s response. “The only change needed is everybody’s got to play way better. That’s the change we need.”
Another Step – Caps center Nicklas Backstrom has missed each of the last two games with an upper body injury, but he did take part in the Caps’ morning skate on Sunday, doing so for the first time in just over a week.
Backstrom was injured late in last Saturday’s Game 5 against Pittsburgh, and he has not played since. He took part in Sunday’s morning skate, but did not participate in the line rushes. Trotz says Backstrom will be a game-time decision for Sunday’s game 2.
Every Other Day Of The Week Is Fine, Yeah – During Trotz’s tenure behind the Washington bench, the Caps have been a team that has thrived on rhythm. In Trotz’s four seasons as the Washington bench boss, the Capitals own a 129-33-16 record when playing on exactly one day’s rest. That translates to a .770 points pct. and it’s way beyond the team’s aggregate record (76-56-18) in all other situations.
In the 2018 playoffs, the Caps are 7-1 on one day’s rest, and they’re 2-3 in their other five games. The rest of this series plays into Washington’s sweet spot, delivering a game every other day.
“I just think it’s probably a little bit of focus,” says Trotz. “They don’t get too far from the game, and I think they stay in the moment a little bit. When we get in a real good rhythm – we’ve been a bigger team over the last few years, and I think the bigger bodies like to keep sort of a steady rhythm.
“For the most part, I think that’s probably the one thing is guys like a little bit of rhythm. We’ve given them enough time to rest, and we never meet on the off days. We think we give them real good space, and I think that has made us real focused, especially on game days.”
Just Adjust – Playoff series are all about adjusting, and adjusting to adjustments. Being down 1-0, the onus is on the Lightning to try to stimulate some offense against a stingy Washington defense that has not allowed more than one five-on-five goal in seven straight games now.
“Guys have been really committed in the right areas of defending,” says Niskanen. “First of all, our breakouts have been really good. You can avoid a lot of junk just by having good breakouts.
“On the other team’s rush plays, I think our forwards have done a tremendous job of backpressuring – catching people from behind and forcing them to make plays sooner than they want. When they have pressure from behind, it takes away a lot of lateral stuff at the blueline.
“We’ve been committed in our own zone. I think we’ve protected our house really well, and especially the net front and the slot. We’ve given up -- in periods of time – some perimeter shots, but that’s where you need commitment to block and box people out and things like that. So guys have been committed to it, and it’s paying off for us.”
Early in Game 1, the Lightning had some looks at the Washington net and some offensive-zone time, but it missed on some of those chances and had some of those shot tries blocked. Tampa Bay managed to get only two of its 18 first-period shot attempts on net, and the Caps were credited with 19 shots blocks on the night, with 11 of them coming in the game’s first 20 minutes.
“To be honest,” says Cooper, “I thought that set a little bit of a negative tone to our game, especially in the first five or six minutes when we had chances and didn’t shoot. I think I said it postgame, but 10 minutes into the game I looked up and I don’t even know if we had a shot yet. But I felt like we were in their zone a considerable amount of time. So for sure that’s got to change.”
Offense From The Defense – Washington’s stable of defensemen aren’t just effective in their own end of the ice. During the 2017-18 regular season, that group averaged 2.15 points per game, the third highest rate of offensive production for any group of Washington blueliners in the last quarter of a century.
Some 13 games into the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Caps’ blueliners are doing even better in the “fun zone.” All seven of the defensemen deployed by Washington in these 13 games has found the scoresheet, and the entire group has combined for six goals and 30 points, an average of 2.31 per game.
With a dozen points (three goals, nine assists), John Carlson ranks second among all NHL defensemen in playoff scoring. And with seven points (one goal, six assists) at even strength, Dmitry Orlov is tied for fourth among NHL blueliners in even-strength scoring. Orlov has recorded all seven of his points in his last nine games.
“I try to always play like that,” says Orlov. “And when you have more ice time, you have more confidence. You kind of know what you can do on the ice and you can read it from all situations, especially in the offensive zone.”
Orlov set up Jay Beagle’s game-winning goal in Game 1 by shaking off a defender high in the Tampa Bay zone and carving out a significant swath of ice for himself in the slot as a result.
“On that goal, I got the puck and everybody was kind of on one side, and then they moved, and I had time to see what was going on. I make a move, and it was good we scored that goal. It was the winning goal for us.
“I just need to be smart, use the puck the whole time in the offensive zone and don’t get turnovers, because Tampa has quick forwards who can jump in the rush, and also defensemen too – they always join the rush.”
In The Nets – Braden Holtby makes his 12
thstart of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs tonight in Tampa Bay. He is 9-2 in his first 11 starts, and he is 9-3 in the playoffs overall. His 2.04 GAA ranks second and his .925 save pct. ranks fourth among all playoff goaltenders with five or more starts. He has made 20 straight starts in the postseason without surrendering more than three goals.
For the first time in 18 starts in his Stanley Cup playoff career, Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy was pulled in Friday’s Game 1 between the Caps and Bolts. In 40 minutes of work, he was dented for four goals on 25 shots in 40 minutes of work. Vasilevskiy didn’t play poorly – two of the goals he yielded came on the power play – but the Caps got into the Tampa Bay bullpen in Game 1 as Louis Domingue manned the crease for the final frame, stopping all seven shots sent in his direction.
All Lined Up – Here is how we expect the Caps and the Lightning to look when they take the ice for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final series on Sunday night in Tampa at Amalie Arena:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 20-Eller, 77-Oshie
65-Burakovsky 18-Stephenson, 10-Connolly
25-Smith-Pelly, 83-Beagle, 39-Chiasson
19-Backstrom (upper body, day-to-day)
10-Miller, 91-Stamkos, 86-Kucherov
18-Palat, 21-Point, 9-Johnson
17-Killorn, 71-Cirelli, 37-Gourde
14-Kunitz, 13-Paquette, 24-Callahan
73-Erne (lower body)