May 15 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Capital One Arena
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7 and FAN 106.7
Game 3, Eastern Conference final series. Caps lead, 2-0.
It’s been just over a week since the Caps ousted the Penguins from the playoffs in Pittsburgh, and on Tuesday night they will return home to play an Eastern Conference final game in the District for the first time in two decades, hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 of the series.
Since their last home game – a 6-3 win over the Pens in Game 5 of the second round on May 5 – the Caps have reeled off three straight victories on the road. After taking out the Penguins on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime goal last Monday, the Caps went south to Tampa, where they took the first two games of the Eastern Conference final from the Lightning in decisive fashion.
The Caps won the series opener on Friday, scoring the game’s first four goals in a 4-2 victory, Two nights later, they overcame some early penalty adversity – and a 2-1 second-period deficit – with five unanswered goals en route to a 6-2 victory and a 2-0 series lead.
“We were giving up too many scoring chances – odd-man rushes,” says Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman of his team's performance in the first two games of the series. “We've got to give their team credit too. They're obviously finding ways to create those opportunities.
“For us, it's about looking at ourselves, looking at our game plan, and looking at our video of what we can change to eliminate that. That's what we're going to do. We've got to bounce back [Tuesday]. It's the biggest game of the year – go down 3-0 or cut the lead in half. We're in this position now and nothing can change, all we can do is focus on [Game 3].”
Overall, the Caps are now 7-1 on the road in the postseason and they’ve won 12 of their last 13 road games dating back to March 22. Now they’ll come home with a multi-game lead in the conference final since June 4, 1998 when they returned home from Buffalo after a Joé Juneau overtime goal gave them a 4-2 series win over the Sabres in the ECF, sending them to a Stanley Cup final date with the Detroit Red Wings.
But a 2-0 series lead is not a series win. As well as they’ve played early in this series, the Caps know that much work remains against Tampa Bay. The Lightning got a couple of late goals in Game 1, but was held off the board for the final 50 minutes or so in Game 2 as the Caps gave the Bolts nothing to feel good about.
“Let's get the next game, that's the message,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “One of the things we've been able to do is focus on the next game. We don't want to change a whole lot.
“Obviously, we're going home. I think from our standpoint, we've got an opportunity to really put Tampa with their backs against the wall, we have that opportunity. We don't want it to slip away and allow them to get back in. So we'll be focused. They will. You're going to see their absolute best effort [Tuesday] night, so we've got to come with our best effort.”
Less than a month ago, the Caps were right where the Lightning is now. Washington lost the first two games of its first-round series with the Blue Jackets, on home ice and in overtime. That put plenty of pressure on the Caps to get a couple of wins in Columbus, which they did. Washington has won 10 of 12 games since those two opening losses to the Jackets, but the Caps know from prior experience how swiftly things can turn at this time of year.
“We won Game 3 in overtime in Columbus,” Trotz notes. “We lose that game, we're down [0-3]. It can change in a heartbeat. We've seen it ourselves and we've lived it. To me, that was the point where once we won that game, our game really settled down and we've been good ever since.”
The Jackets left the door open for the Caps, who kicked it in. Now, Washington will try to close a different door in the Lightning’s face on Tuesday night. The Capitals expected the Lightning to have a pushback in Game 2, and it did. But Washington made sure its own effort and intensity was at least on a par with that of Tampa Bay.
“I think we wanted to make sure that we had a good effort [Sunday] night, too, in the same sense that the series could turn quickly,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. “You always want to be on the right side of things. The way that we started the game, and obviously finished the game, was really positive for us. But another pivotal game [is coming Tuesday]. [We’ve] got to ramp everything up just a little bit more, but I think we'll be energized and ready to play in front of our fans. It's going to be pretty fun.”
Coming into this series, the Lightning was he best possession team in the playoffs. But the Caps have outplayed the Lightning in all three zones in the series, with Washington’s staunch neutral zone play keeping the Lightning from establishing its forecheck.
“I think neutral zone has been crucial,” says Carlson. “If [the Lightning is] dumping pucks there, we're getting a little bit more time than we do when we're not as sharp in the neutral zone. That's kind of been a huge, low-key difference maker for us this season is when we do that well – break the puck out a lot easier with the speed that we have.
“It's against aggressive teams like them and a lot of other teams that we've played are left in the playoffs, the crisper you can be on your execution and breakouts and all that, it's tough to defend against when they're wanting to pinch down all the time and challenge the exits and stuff like that.”
Tampa Bay outscored its opponents 19-12 at five-on-five in the first two rounds of the 2018 playoffs, but the Caps own a whopping 7-1 advantage in five-on-five scoring in the first two games of this series. Since dropping those first two games to Columbus, the Caps have outscored opponents by a combined 29-16 at five-on-five in their last dozen games.
In Game 3, the Lightning will be looking for a way to crack the Caps’ neutral zone code and to try spending some more time in Washington’s end of the ice.
“I think it starts with our forecheck,” says Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi. “The [Capitals] are coming out pretty clean with a lot of speed. That's hard for us.
“The forwards need to gap up and take the time and space away. We have to figure out how to forecheck, how to stop their breakouts being so clean, and everything all coming into place from there.”
Washington has permitted no more than one goal at five-on-five in each of its last eight games. The Caps will look to keep that run, and to stay disciplined so as to limit the looks of the lethal Lightning power play unit, which has scored in seven straight games.
“We're off to a heck of a start,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, “but we've got to take care of business at home here. It's all about Game 3. If they win one or two here, boy, the momentum switches big time, so we've got to take care of business.”