A long mid-spring weekend on the west coast of Florida certainly carries connotations of pleasure, but the Capitals’ trip to Tampa this weekend was all business. Two nights after handing the Lightning 4-2 loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, the Caps doubled down on the Bolts, scoring five unanswered goals en route to a 6-2 win in Sunday’s Game 2.
Washington now heads home with a 2-0 series lead, and with seven wins in its eight road games in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We came here to get two,” says Washington winger Devante Smith-Pelly, whose second-period goal tied the game at 2-2 and started the string of unanswered goals. “After we got the first one, the idea was to get the second one.
“Going home, we’ve got to play the same way. We can’t change anything, we can’t let our foot off the pedal. We’ve got to keep going and play exactly the way we played here at home.”
In the first two games of the series, the Caps have methodically dismantled the Bolts, outscoring them 7-1 at five-on-five and carrying the play in all three zones. Washington wasn’t satisfied with winning one game in Florida – it got greedy, stayed stingy, overcame some adversity and left Amalie Arena sounding like a library at closing time.
“For a team that has been used to being able to make some plays,” says Lightning coach Jon Cooper, “we sure haven’t made them in these two games. It’s very uncharacteristic of us, and that’s the difference. They’ve made plays and we haven’t, and it cost us.”
After Tom Wilson’s tip of Matt Niskanen’s right point shot staked the Caps to an early 1-0 lead just 28 seconds after opening puck drop, Washington found itself in some hot penalty soup ahead of the midpoint of the first. A couple of questionable penalty calls against the Capitals led to a pair of Tampa Bay power-play tallies just over three minutes apart in the middle of the first period, allowing the Lightning to take its first lead of the series.
The Bolts took that 2-1 lead to the room after 20 minutes of play, and threatened to stretch it to two goals in a fateful sequence early in the second. Lightning forward J.T. Miller carried into Washington ice, leading a rare odd-man rush for the Bolts. But he waited too long to make a play, and Caps defenseman John Carlson adeptly broke up the threat, clearing the puck off the wall in his own end, and starting a two-on-one rush for Washington in the other direction. Alex Chiasson carried into the Tampa Bay zone and fed Smith-Pelly perfectly. The latter’s one-timer beat Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilievskiy to make it a 2-2 game just 2:50 into the second period.
Another crucial sequence unfolded late in that middle period with the score still even at 2-2. With 62 seconds left in the period, the Caps took the lead, getting what would prove to be the game-winning goal on a forecheck. Dmitry Orlov threw the puck into the right wing corner, and T.J. Oshie went after it. He beat Bolts blueliner Anton Stralman to the puck, and the Tampa defender lost his footing behind his own net as partner Victor Hedman pokechecked the puck away. Caps winger Jakub Vrana quickly retrieved it and saw Lars Eller driving the net in front. Eller had all the time and space needed to chip Vrana’s feed to the shelf for a 3-2 Washington lead.
The Caps weren’t done scoring in the second, either. Another questionable penalty call – this one on the Lightning – put Washington on the power play with fewer than 10 seconds remaining in the frame. But the Caps scored a power-play goal in a matter of seconds at the end of the first period of Game 1, and they repeated the feat here. Washington won the offensive-zone draw with 9.8 seconds left in the period, and Evgeny Kuznetsov’s centering feed for Eller glanced off Vasilevskiy and into the net for a 4-2 Washington lead at 19:57 of the second.
With a two-goal lead and 20 minutes remaining, the Caps kept the throttle open. Wilson made an excellent chip play along the wall in his own end to spring his linemates on a two-on-one rush early in the third, and Kuznetsov fed Alex Ovechkin for the Caps’ captain’s 10
thgoal in 14 playoff games this spring, increasing the Washington lead to 5-2 at 3:34 of the third.
Former Lightning winger Brett Connolly fired home a shot from the slot at 12:57 for Washington’s sixth goal of the night and its fifth unanswered. All four Washington lines contributed a goal at five-on-five, and six different players found the back of the net.
Braden Holtby made 33 saves and turned in a typically excellent performance in the Caps nets, stopping all 26 Tampa Bay shots at even strength. Washington started generating scoring chances on its first shift of the game, and it never stopped, giving it the confidence that it could come back from Tampa Bay’s twin power play strikes in the first.
“We knew it doesn’t matter what’s going to happen, we are just going to play our game,” says Ovechkin. “You can see they scored a goal – the second one – and we didn’t panic. We just stayed to the system and played the right way and it gave us the result.”
“We can only control what we can control,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “Obviously we didn’t agree with a couple of things, but I thought we responded pretty well. We just refocused and we tried to stay on task, and I think we did. I think we’ve gone through some stuff this year early in the playoffs and we’ve learned from it.
“We’ve got a real good group right now that understands to get back in the moment – don’t get too far from the center point, and keep focused on the task at hand and stay in the moment.”