Coming Home – It’s been almost 20 years since the Caps last hosted a third-round playoff series in the District, but they’ll be hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 on Tuesday night at Capital One Arena.
It’s been 10 days since the Caps last played a home game, and it was a good one. The Caps authored a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on May 5 in Game 5 of their second-round series, a win that gave Washington a 3-2 lead in that series. Since that triumph, the Caps kicked the Pens to the curb with a Game 6 win in Pittsburgh and then went down to Tampa and took the first two games of the Eastern Conference final series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, winning both games in convincing fashion.
Washington is 7-1 on the road and just 3-3 on home ice in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, but as they appear in just their third conference final series in their 40-plus years of existence, the home folks should be happy to see them.
“Cheer loud, help us out, positive energy,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We're going to do our best tonight, absolutely. That's what we've been trying to do right through the playoffs. So give us your good vibe.”
As for the Lightning, they need a win badly in Game 3 just to remain viable in the series.
“Winning on the road – if you want to advance in the playoffs, you have to win on the road,” says Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “I just think good teams do that. And when you get to the final four, those teams usually deserve to be there because they’ve won games on the road.
“Part of that is because probably you’ve got a pretty good team, but it’s just understanding what the challenges are, making sure that the crowd noise is just white noise, it’s what our challenge is on the ice – that’s where your focus has to be.”
Keep On Keeping On – As well as Washington has played in the first two games of this series against the Lightning, the Caps have got to be looking to put forth the same type of effort and performance now that the series has shifted north.
Losing the first two games at home is a tough row to hoe in a playoff series, but the Caps successfully navigated their way through that difficult bit of adversity in the first round of these 2018 playoffs, after dropping Games 1 and 2 here in Washington, with both losses coming in overtime. It was four weeks ago tonight that Washington won its first playoff game of 2018 on Lars Eller’s game-winner in double-overtime in Columbus, a victory that kept them from falling into the same 0-3 ditch the Capitals are trying to push the Lightning into tonight.
Tampa Bay will now be seeking to replicate the Caps’ feat of digging out of that early 0-2 series hole to come back and win the series.
“They've proven it's possible,” says Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman of the Capitals. “That's what's so fun with hockey. Things can swing from one day to another. Like I said, we've got the group. We've got the team to rally around us and put these two games behind us and look forward.
“So it's the first of four, not the first of two. We're obviously pushed against the wall a little bit, but we're a team that's been known for rallying from behind and battling through adversity. So we're going to have to do that again.”
There is one significant difference between what Washington was able to do in the first round against Columbus and what Tampa Bay is trying to pull off here in this series. Washington lost the first two games of its series to the Blue Jackets, but the Caps played quite well in both of those games – several players in the Washington room will tell you that Game 2 vs. Columbus is among the best and most complete of the 96 games they’ve played this season – but did not get the desired result.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has not played well in the first two games of the series. The Lightning are looking for answers as to why it hasn’t been as competitive as it hoped in this series, and it is running low on time. The Lightning has spent the last couple days studying video, trying to figure it all out, and making the adjustments it will unveil tonight for Game 3.
“There are some subtle things that we have to do differently that I think will make a world of difference for us,” says Lightning forward Tyler Johnson. “But overall, it’s compete.
“I think at first you have to break down tape to see what went wrong and see what you have to change to adjust to. That’s what the playoffs is – it’s a chess match out there. And credit to [the Caps]; they’ve done a better job than us so far. Now it’s our turn to try to adjust here and get some different things, but at the same time, you want to see the result. It has to come tonight.”
Washington’s best play in Game 3 is to maintain its game plan, its intensity, its effort and its focus levels from the first two games, all while treating Tuesday’s contest as if it were the first game of a 0-0 series, rather than the third game of a set in which they’re up by a couple of games.
“I think you’ve got to reset your mind,” says Caps center Lars Eller. “You’ve got to have the same hunger to win as we had in Games 1 and 2. We can’t start thinking that it’s going to be any easier, or to change our mindset. Our approach has to be the same as Game 1 and 2.”
Thriving At Five-On-Five – Washington’s five-on-five play in this series has been critical to its success to this point. The Caps have outscored the Lightning 7-1 at five-on-five in this series, but Washington actually turned a corner in that regard early in the second round against the Penguins.
Early in the third period of Game 1 of that series against the Pens, the Caps were dented for a trio of five-on-five goals in less than five minutes of playing time. Washington lost that game 3-2, leaving it with a 4-3 overall record through its first seven playoff games. The Caps had been outscored 16-14 at five-on-five to that point of the playoffs in those seven games.
Seven games later, the Caps are thriving at five-on-five. Washington has allowed no more than one goal at five-on-five in each of its last seven games, and the Caps have outscored the opposition by a combined 17-5 at five-on-five during that span.
“I just think team commitment,” says Trotz, “and we're all connected in all three zones in terms of what our disciplines are, our protocols, and the commitment and work ethic you need to perform those. I think the five-on-five play, you're going to see there's a lot of five guys in the picture. Any time you look on the screen, there are five guys, and that just means you're playing as a group of five, you're playing correct, and you're playing with real good structure and responsibility.”
Washington scored five goals at five-on-five in Game 3, getting one from each of its four forward lines.
“I look back now and sit here and say, ‘God, if we could just tie the special teams war with Washington, we’re in pretty good shape,’” says Cooper. “We’ve tied the special teams war, and we’re not in good shape. So we’ve got to be better on the five-on-five side of things. Boston was probably saying the exact same thing when they were playing us, and we’ve just got to be better in that area.”
Leading Men – Washington has had 391 minutes and 19 seconds of lead time in the 2018 playoffs, the most among all of the 16 playoff entrants. The Caps have owned a lead at one point or another in 13 of their 14 postseason games. Tampa Bay ranks third, which is no surprise, really. The four teams remaining are the top four in that category, as you’d expect at this juncture.
It’s the flip side of the coin that’s enlightening. The Caps have trailed for a grand total of 113 minutes and 30 seconds in those 14 games, and even with 12 teams having been eliminated from the playoffs, the Caps still lead the league in the least time trailing among the 16 clubs. The Los Angeles Kings were quickly swept aside in four games, but their total time trailing in those four games – 119 minutes and 18 seconds – is still more than Washington’s.
“We’ve had the lead briefly in the series,” says Cooper. “Unfortunately, we were in a situation [in Game 2] where we thought we could extend the lead – we didn’t, and they tied it. Now the game is back to being a little bit more of a chess match.
“One of the things for me is you have to make [the Caps] play catch-up, because when they do have the lead they sit back, and you have to go through four guys. They all can skate, they’re all angling, they’re all in lanes, and it just makes it tougher.
“When they don’t have the lead, they’re a little bit more loose in the way they play. They don’t sit back as much, they’re not waiting for you to make a mistake because they’re trying to create offense themselves. So if you want to have a chance to kind of open things up for yourself, make sure you get the lead.”
Power Trio – Washington’s top forward trio of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson has combined for four goals and 11 points in the first two games of the series. Even though Kuznetsov had a tough night on the dot in Game 2 – winning only 3 of 17 face-offs – and his unit was forced to start without the puck a lot, the Caps’ top line outscored the Bolts 2-0 at five-on-five in Sunday’s contest.
“When you're dialed in, you don't mind going to get the puck,” says Trotz. “You can separate people. I think they were draw ready, even though they weren't winning draws, they were able to break up some stuff, and when you're hounding the puck, putting pressure on it in tight spaces and your numbers are putting them in tough areas, you're getting the puck back a lot quicker. I thought they were just checking well. When they didn't have the puck, they checked well to get it back.”
“We’re focused,” says Wilson. “We’re worried about what’s going on from our side. Match-ups and all that doesn’t really matter to us. Whoever we’re playing against, we’re just going to try to do the right things. I’ve got to be good on both sides of the puck and just try and get the puck to those guys – my linemates – and they’ll make things happen.
“It’s been good so far. That being said, there is still a lot of hockey here. We’ve got to keep pushing forward, we’ve got to keep doing the little things that have made us successful.”
It Was 20 Years Ago Today – On May 15, 1998, the Caps forged a 3-0 shutout victory over the Ottawa Senators in Game 5 of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series. Behind Olie Kolzig’s 29-save performance, the victory gave the Caps a 4-1 series win, enabling Washington to move on to the Eastern Conference final series and a date with the Buffalo Sabres.
After a scoreless first period, Joé Juneau scored what would prove to be the game-winning goal for Washington at 2:39 of the second, with help from Brian Bellows and Phil Housley.
Kolzig and the Caps nursed that lead into the latter stages of the third period before Sergei Gonchar was able to add to it with a power-play goal with just 1:26 left in regulation, Juneau and Adam Oates assisting. Calle Johansson closed out the scoring and the series with 18 seconds left, sealing Washington’s first-ever home playoff series win in its new downtown D.C. digs.
The series-clinching shutout was Kolzig’s third of the playoffs and his second in succession. He blanked the Sens 2-0 in Game 4, a game in which the Caps were outshot 36-11.
In The Nets – Braden Holtby is in the net again for Washington, owning a four-game winning streak for the second time in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, his personal best in the postseason. Holtby is 10-3 in the postseason and 10-2 as a starter. He has a 2.04 GAA and a .926 save pct. in the 2018 playoffs.
When playing on one day’s rest in the 2018 playoffs, as he will be doing tonight, Holtby is 8-1 with a 2.05 GAA and a .929 save pct. He will be aiming for his 40
thcareer postseason victory tonight; he comes in with a 39-33 career mark.
Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy will be in net again for the Bolts. Vasilevskiy has surrendered 10 goals in five periods of work in this series, and he was pulled in favor of backup Louis Domingue in the third period of Game 1.
While Vasilevskiy has not played to his regular season capabilities in this series, he did reel off four straight victories over the Bruins in the Lightning’s previous series and he led the NHL with 44 victories during the regular season.
“I think everybody has got to raise their level,” says Cooper, “and I don’t know why guys have to defend Vasilevskiy. He’s been really good for us.
“Have [the Capitals] got some fortunate bounces in some of the things that have happened? They have. But I’m a big believer in you kind of earn your bounces. So yeah, it was fortunate for them the way some pucks have bounced, but they deserved them.
“For us and Vasy, we’re confident in what he does for us. We just can’t give these chances up. I mean, it’s two-on-one after two-on-one, and it’s not Jon Cooper going in on the two-on-one, it’s Kuznetsov and Ovechkin. There is a big difference there. So yeah, we have to limit those.”
All Lined Up – Here is how we expect the Caps and the Lightning to look when they take the ice for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final series on Tuesday night at Capital One 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)