Andrei Vasilevskiy is a much better goaltender than he showed in the first two games of the Eastern Conference final series, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are a much better team than they showed in the first two contests.
Both Vasilevskiy and the Lightning showed up on time and ready to roll for Tuesday’s Game 3 of the series in the District, and the result was a good one for the Bolts. Coming off consecutive losses for the first time in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, Vezina Trophy nominee Vasilevskiy made 36 saves – including 20 of them on Washington stars Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov – and each of Tampa Bay’s other four 2018 All-Stars scored to help the Lightning down the Capitals 4-2.
Tampa Bay’s Game 3 triumph cuts the Caps’ series lead to 2-1, with Game 4 slated for Thursday night in Washington.
Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov scored on the power play for the Lightning, and Victor Hedman and Brayden Point added even-strength markers as Tampa Bay doubled up on its goal total from each of the first two games of the series. All four players were named to the 2018 All-Star squad, though Hedman missed the game because of injury.
“We checked,” says Lightning coach Jon Cooper of his team's Game 3 performance. “You have to check in this league. When you have a really good team like they do across the way, if you’re going to give them open ice to make their plays, that team will kill you, and they did it for two games. We had to check tonight, and it helped it go in our favor tonight.”
Coming into Tuesday’s Game 3, three of the four Lightning goals in the series had come on the power play. The Bolts won the special teams battle decisively, and they got started early. After killing off Washington’s first extra-man opportunity of the game, Tampa Bay took its first 1-0 lead on a power play of its own.
Stamkos drilled a one-timer from the left circle past Caps goalie Braden Holtby at 13:53, staking the Lightning to a lead they would maintain for the remainder of the game.
The game slipped out of reach for Washington in the first few minutes of the middle period. Early in the second, the Lightning doubled down on the power play, getting a Nikita Kucherov one-timer from the right side to make it a 2-0 game at 1:50 of the second. For just the second time in the postseason, the Caps found themselves down more than a goal.
Tampa Bay used that Kucherov tally to generate some sustained momentum, and to add to its advantage. As the Bolts buzzed the Washington zone, Kucherov made a slick play to feed a wide-open Victor Hedman for an easy weak-side strike at 3:37, putting the Caps down three goals for the first time in the postseason.
Washington responded and got one back just after the midpoint of the middle period. Matt Niskanen made a strong play at the right point to keep the puck in the zone, bumping it down to Chandler Stephenson in the slot. Stephenson teed up Brett Connolly for a one-timer, and the former Lightning winger bit the hand that once fed him for the second time in as many games, cranking a shot past Vasilevskiy at 10:31 of the second.
The Caps weren’t able to pull closer on a power play a couple minutes later, and the Lightning restored its three-goal cushion late in the frame, a goal that really hurt the Capitals’ cause. Face-offs have been somewhat of an issue for Washington early in this series, and a defensive-zone loss led to another Lightning goal.
Point won the draw cleanly from Stephenson, pulling the right dot drop back to Braydon Coburn at center point. Connolly got a piece of Coburn’s shot, and the puck caromed into a pile of bodies in the slot. Point plucked it from the pile and zipped a shot past Holtby on the short side to make it a 4-1 game with less than four minutes remaining in the second. Only six seconds elapsed from the time the puck was dropped and the time it hit the twine.
“Even when we got it to 3-1, if we got through that [second] period at 3-1,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz, “I was still feeling that our team was calm. We were chasing the game a little bit, but I thought we were starting to get some traction going forward. And then that fourth goal, that was the one I thought sort of left a mark.”
Washington had another power play chance early in the third, but wasn’t able to generate a shot on net. The Lightning whittled the clock down effectively; the Caps managed 13 shots on net in the third, but seven of those came in the final 3:02 of regulation, and the first of those seven made it a 4-2 game with 3:02 left.
Seconds after the Caps pulled Holtby for an extra attacker, T.J. Oshie made a nice feed from the top of the left circle to Kuznetsov down near the goal line on the right side. Kuznetsov settled the puck and ripped a shot past Vasilevskiy from a tough angle to get the Caps back within a pair.
Washington continued to pour on the pressure, but it wasn't enough. The Lightning is back in this series.
“We believed all along,” says Stamkos. “We knew we weren’t good enough. And credit to [the Caps] – they played really good hockey in the first two games. We needed to make some adjustments. We did that, we worked on it, the coaching staff did a great job of preparing us, and the players went out and did what we were told.
“We saw how good we could be in the previous rounds if we played the right way, and tonight – for the most part – I thought we did that, and we got rewarded.”