• With the Capitals leading 1-0, a breakaway goal by Nikita Kucherov was waved off for too many men on the ice for Tampa. Just seconds after the non-goal and Capitals power play, Alex Ovechkin blasted one into the net to give Washington a 2-0 lead at the end of the first period. The Capitals struck again at the start of the second period to push the lead to 3-0 and then again to make it 4-0. The Lightning struck twice to make it 4-2 in the third. (Read more)
• The Lightning have five ex-New York Rangers players — and they have a long playoff history with the Capitals. (Read more)
Capitals bury Bolts beneath early goals
by Isabelle Khurshudyan
TAMPA — The paddle-shaped rattlers thundered throughout Amalie Arena as the puck dropped Friday night. But with each minute that ticked by, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s side of the scoreboard seemingly frozen at zero shots on goal, the drumming subsided. More than nine minutes passed before the Lightning had a shot on goal, and the Washington Capitals had the lead by then. Not long after Tampa Bay’s third shot came Washington’s third goal, the contest stunningly lopsided — especially considering the Lightning entered the series as the heavy favorite.
Just four days after one of the biggest wins in franchise history, one that clinched their first Eastern Conference finals berth in 20 years and vanquished a heated rival, the Capitals responded with one of their more impressive wins of the postseason, a 4-2 dismantling of the Lightning.
“One thing we really wanted to focus on was to not have a letdown after, obviously, there’s a lot of emotions through our locker room after that series win,” goaltender Braden Holtby said of the Capitals’ 2-1 overtime win Monday night that eliminated the host Pittsburgh Penguins, who claimed the Stanley Cup the past two seasons. “You enjoy it while it’s there, but we had a couple days to just refocus, put it out of our mind and scout the Lightning to see what we could do to have success against them. . . . I think we just went right back to work, and I thought the guys responded really well to this game.”
Winning Game 1 hasn’t meant much to either club in these playoffs — Washington lost Game 1 in each of its first two series, and Tampa Bay dropped Game 1 against Boston last round — but Friday’s road win means the Capitals have seized home-ice advantage.
For the second straight game, Washington’s strong defensive play overcame the absence of top center Nicklas Backstrom, who’s out with an injury to his right hand. The Capitals allowed the Lightning just two shots on goal in the first period as they took a two-goal lead. Washington had four goals to Tampa Bay’s four shots less than seven minutes into the second period, with the Lightning suffocated by the Capitals’ tight checking.
“It’s throughout the whole lineup is where the strength is,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “When you have one line after another, whether it’s [Evgeny Kuznetsov’s] line or [Jay Beagle’s] line, coming in to the [defensive] zone and playing the same way, it just makes things so much easier. We get the puck back quicker, and we get to play offense a lot more.”
A five-second sequence at the end of the first period took the Capitals from tied with the Lightning at intermission to up by two goals. Tampa Bay sniper Nikita Kucherov caught Washington out of position, getting behind defenseman Dmitry Orlov for a partial breakaway on Holtby. He scored a highlight-reel goal, tying the score at 1 with less than 10 seconds left, but a penalty was called before Kucherov’s shot: The Lightning had six skaters on the ice.
That wiped Kucherov’s goal off the board, and it put the Capitals on their first power play. As Tampa Bay cruised to the Eastern Conference finals, winning both of its first two series in five games, its penalty kill was a weakness: Entering Friday, the Lightning had yielded eight goals in 31 times shorthanded. Oshie won the first faceoff, pulling the puck back to Kuznetsov, who set up Alex Ovechkin. His blast from the point beat Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy for a 2-0 lead.
“It was a big moment for us,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “That was a window of opportunity for us, and we were able to do something with it. In the playoffs, a lot of times you may get only one or two a game, and that was one of those windows that we were able to execute on and take advantage of.”
The Capitals then got some fortunate breaks. After Orlov kept an offensive-zone shift alive, forward Brett Connolly flubbed a shot from point-blank range. But the puck took a lucky bounce off Tampa Bay defenseman Braydon Coburn’s skate and onto Beagle’s stick. He jammed it through Vasilevskiy’s legs for a 3-0 lead 2:40 into the second period. Four minutes later, after arguably a soft roughing call on Kucherov, Washington’s power play again took advantage. Lars Eller was promoted to the top unit with Backstrom out, and he scored on a rebound of Oshie’s shot to make it 4-0.
At even strength, Eller centered the second line with Oshie and Jakub Vrana. Rookie Chandler Stephenson moved from the wing to center the third line with Connolly and left wing Andre Burakovsky, back after missing the past 10 playoff games with an upper-body injury. Though Backstrom is considered Washington’s best two-way center, the Capitals held the Lightning to 10 shots through 40 minutes. Tampa Bay pulled Vasilveskiy at second intermission in favor of backup Louis Domingue and then scored twice in the third period, but it couldn’t overcome Washington’s four-goal cushion.
“Guys are stepping up,” said Holtby, who made 19 saves. “We know probably better than anyone how complete a player Nick is, especially defensively. There’s a ton of things that don’t get noticed except for from us. I think our guys respect Nick so much that we know we have to step up because he’s a huge spot to fill and our guys are doing a phenomenal job, especially up the middle.”
Offseason turnover because of salary cap constraints and the Vegas expansion draft had made defense Washington’s greatest weakness during the regular season. The turning point came at the trade deadline, when the team acquired defenseman Michal Kempny, who moved into a top-four role beside top right-shot John Carlson. And on Friday night, with Ovechkin battling defensemen Victor Hedman and Dan Girardi for position in front of Vasilevskiy 7:28 into the game, Kempny’s shot from the left point got through the traffic for Washington’s first goal.
Not long after the Capitals’ acquisitions of Kempny and depth defenseman Jakub Jerabek, the team had a meeting to address its defensive-zone protocols, clarifying certain terminology and reemphasizing the team’s basic philosophy of defending as a five-man group. Oshie felt that, perhaps because the Capitals had struggled with their play away from the puck all year, they had become a better defensive team than ever by the time the postseason started.
Missing a key offensive cog Friday night — Backstrom had a solo conditioning skate Thursday with some light stickhandling, an encouraging sign — the Capitals used impressive defensive play to control puck possession and score off that.
Now they have early control of the series with a Stanley Cup finals appearance at stake — and one of their best players could be back in the lineup soon.
A fast start: For the first time in three rounds this postseason, the Capitals took Game 1, and they did it with a dominating first two periods. Making their first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals since 1998, when they opened their best-of-seven series against Buffalo with a 2-0 loss at home, the Capitals had as many goals (2) as Tampa Bay had shots in the first. Washington was outshooting Tampa Bay 25-10 and carried a 4-0 lead into the third after getting goals from four different players. Like the team’s official hashtag, Friday’s game was (almost) #ALLCAPS.
A two-second, two-goal swing: Things happen fast in the NHL playoffs and the defining sequence of Game 1 was the final eight seconds of the first period. That’s when Tampa Bay forward Nikita Kucherov appeared to tie the game with his team-leading seventh goal of the postseason, only for officials to wave it off because the Lightning had too many men on the ice. T.J. Oshie won the ensuing faceoff in the Tampa Bay zone to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who fed a pass to a wide-open Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals’ captain buried a one-timer past Andrei Vasilevskiy for a power-play goal and a 2-0 lead.
It’s only one game: Barry Trotz likely won’t have any problem getting his team to refocus ahead of Sunday’s Game 2, and not only because the Lightning showed signs of life with two goals in the third period. Trotz can remind his players that Tampa Bay looked awful while losing Game 1 of their second-round series against the Bruins, 6-2, before rattling off four straight wins.
Defense continues to pitch in: The Capitals entered Friday’s game with 27 points from their defensemen this postseason, the most among the four teams remaining. That trend continued, as Michal Kempny opened the scoring with his first career playoff goal, while John Carlson tied a Capitals record for most points by a defenseman (12) in a single postseason with an assist on the play. The job that Washington’s defense did to slow the high-powered Lightning’s attack, especially in the first two periods, was pretty decent, too.
Final: Capitals 4, Lightning 2
Louis Domingue headed to the bench to give the desperate Lightning an extra attacker with 1:45 to play, but Tampa Bay would get no closer. Despite being outscored 2-0 in the period, the Capitals hung on for a 4-2 win and a 1-0 lead in the series. Game 2 is Sunday.
Bolts creep closer: Less than a minute after officials stopped play to review — and confirm — a no-goal call on a stuff attempt by Lars Eller, Tampa Bay forward Ondrej Palat cut the Capitals’ lead to 4-2 by beating Braden Holtby short side above his right blocker with 6:57 to play.
A kill for the Capitals: After Tampa Bay extended its streak of games with at least one power-play goal to six earlier in the third period, Washington’s penalty killing unit survived Alex Chiasson’s roughing penalty midway through the frame. The Capitals made a bid for a shorthanded goal when John Carlson ripped a shot off the crossbar. The Lightning are now 1 for 3 with the man advantage and Washington is 7:59 from a Game 1 win.
Caps’ power play now 2 for 4: The Amalie Arena crowd had barely finished celebrating Steven Stamkos’s goal when Chris Kunitz took down Tom Wilson to put Washington back on the power play. The Lightning’s penalty-killing unit was up to the task and Louis Domingue made his first difficult save in relief on Andrei Vasilevskiy on a shot by Alex Ovechkin to keep the Capitals’ lead at 4-1.
Bolts on the board: There goes the shutout. Fourteen seconds after Alex Chiasson was sent off for slashing less than four minutes into the third period, Steven Stamkos ripped a one-timer off a pass from Nikita Kucherov past Braden Holtby to put the Lightning on the board.
New goalie for Tampa: For the second consecutive night, a Vezina Trophy finalist was pulled from a playoff game. Thursday it was Nashville’s Pekka Rinne in the Predators’ Game 7 loss to the Jets. Tonight it’s the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made 21 saves on 25 shots in the first two periods. Looking for a spark with the Lightning trailing 4-0, Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper turned to Louis Domingue to start the third.
Seriously, it could be worse for Tampa: They haven’t scored yet, but the second line of Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie has been productive for Washington as a group. Vrana is tied with Oshie for the team lead in even-strength scoring chances with three while Eller has two shot attempts, one of those creating a juicy rebound off Tampa Bay netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Nikita Kucherov, on the other hand, not only had his goal called off due to a penalty, he has just one shot on net through two periods despite almost a minute of ice time with the man advantage.
End Period 2: Capitals 4, Lightning 0
Tampa Bay killed off Chris Kunitz’s penalty late in the second period, which qualifies as a minor victory for the Eastern Conference’s top seed in a game that’s been dominated by the Capitals. Shortly after the Lightning’s first successful penalty kill of the night, Braden Holtby foiled a Nikita Kucherov shot from a tight angle. Holtby has saved all 10 of Tampa Bay’s shots on goal and the Capitals will take a 4-0 lead into the final 20 minutes.
Doc Emrick summed up the Lightning’s performance with one word, perhaps unknowingly into a hot mic, before throwing it to commercial for the second intermission: “Woof”.
Nothing doing for the Lightning: Tampa Bay was the NHL’s highest-scoring team during the regular season and they averaged 3.4 goals per game in the second round against the Bruins, but they haven’t gotten much of anything going offensively against the Capitals. With 5:44 remaining in the second period, Washington has a 4-0 lead and a 20-8 advantage in shots. To make matters worse for the home team, Chris Kunitz headed to the penalty box for hooking. As if the Capitals needed the help.
Noisemakers, but little noise: In a move that’s arguably more infuriating than the strict no-red dress code the Lightning is enforcing for certain sections at Amalie Arena this series, the team handed out noisemakers to all fans at Game 1. With Tampa Bay trailing 4-0 midway through the second period, some of the loudest sounds from the home crowd were boos.
Make it 4-0, what took so long?: It took 41 seconds for the Capitals’ power play to strike again. Lars Eller gave Washington a 4-0 lead when he banged in a rebound to a wide-open net. Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie were credited with the assists. It is all Caps early.
Another power play for the Caps: Washington needed one second to score on its first power play of the game late in the first period. A roughing penalty on Nikita Kucherov 6:01 into the second period put the Lightning’s struggling penalty-killing unit on the ice once again.
Make it 3-0: Less than three minutes into the second period, Washington extended its lead to 3-0 on a dirty goal by Jay Beagle. Dmitry Orlov created the opportunity with a nifty move inside the blue line to set up Brett Connolly for a one-time attempt. Connolly whiffed on his shot, but got enough of the puck that it trickled toward the crease, where Beagle poked it between Andrei Vasilevskiy’s pads for his second goal of the playoffs.
Strongest start possible: During NBC Sports Washington’s pregame show, analyst Alan May said the Capitals would win Game 1 if they played a lockdown defensive game like the one they did in Monday’s series-clinching win over the Penguins. The first 20 minutes were a good start. Tampa Bay wasn’t credited with a shot on goal for the first nine minutes and finished with two in the period. At intermission, NBC Sports Network analyst Keith Jones said the Capitals played “a perfect period.”
Capitals all over the Lightning early: Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson, difference-makers in the second-round series against the Boston Bruins, allowed four unblocked shot attempts to Alex Ovechkin’s line and were on the ice for Michal Kempny’s goal against, the first even-strength goal the Lightning has allowed in four games.
Tampa Bay’s shutdown pair of Victor Hedman and Dan Girardi didn’t fare much better against Washington’s second line of Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie, allowing five shot attempts and three scoring chances in addition to also being on the ice for the first goal of the game.
End Period 1: Capitals 2, Lightning 0
Well, that was interesting. Shortly after it appeared Tampa tied the game, the goal was wiped out by a too-many-men penalty. On the ensuing power play, Alex Ovechkin blasted home a slap shot off the faceoff to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead.
A two-goal swing: Instead of the game being tied 1-1, Tampa Bay’s penalty for too many men resulted in a Capitals power play and a faceoff in the offensive zone. Before NBC Sports Network play-by-play man Doc Emrick could finish describing Washington’s deadly power play, T.J. Oshie won said faceoff to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who found Alex Ovechkin for a one-timer and a 2-0 Capitals lead with six seconds remaining.
Capitals kill game’s first penalty: With 2:26 to play in the first period, the Lightning went to the power play after Matt Niskanen was whistled for holding Steven Stamkos. Niskanen didn’t have much choice after Tampa Bay’s speedy center skated between him and Dmitry Orlov and would’ve had a breakaway on Braden Holtby. Washington’s penalty killing unit was up to the task.
Another chance for the Caps: While Braden Holtby has enjoyed a relatively calm first period, Andrei Vasilevskiy continues to keep Tampa Bay in the game. Less than two minutes after his big save on Brett Connolly, the Lightning goalie slid across the crease to make a pad save on a one-timer by Lars Eller. With four minutes remaining in the period, almost all of the scoring chances in Game 1 have belonged to the Capitals.
Big save: Andrei Vasilevskiy didn’t have a chance on Michael Kempny’s opening goal, but he showed why he’s a Vezina Trophy finalist four minutes later, stoning Brett Connolly in front of the net off a perfect pass from Chandler Stephenson. With 8:21 remaining the first period, shots were 5-1 Washington.
Capitals strike first: With 12:32 remaining in the first period, Michal Kempny fired a wrist shot from the point through traffic that beat Andrei Vasilevskiy glove side to give Washington a 1-0 lead. It was Kempny’s first career playoff goal and marked the 10th time in 13 games this postseason that the Capitals have scored first. Washington is 6-3 in its previous nine such games.
Lots of action, few shots: Almost seven minutes into Game 1, the Capitals have a modest 2-0 advantage in shots. After a strong shift spent almost entirely in the Tampa Bay zone, Dmitry Orlov ripped a shot from the point that Andrei Vasilevskiy turned aside. The Lightning have a 7-6 advantage in hits, but the biggest check belongs to Brooks Orpik, who leveled Ondrej Palat as the Tampa Bay winger approached the blue line, leading to an offside.
The matchup game: As expected, Lightning coach Jon Cooper matched his shutdown line of Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson against the Capitals’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov for the opening faceoff. Led by the 22-year-old Point, Tampa Bay’s second line frustrated the Bruins’ top line centered by Patrice Bergeron for the final four games of the Lightning’s five-game triumph in the second round. With Nicklas Backstrom out with a hand injury, the pressure will be on Washington’s second-line center Lars Ellers. The Capitals’ second line generated the game’s first shot 1:16 into the first period.
The Lightning’s top threats: Tampa Bay superstars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov skated together for 778 minutes at even strength during the regular season, outscoring opponents 53 to 38. They’ve shared 111 minutes in the playoffs, outscoring opponents 4 to 1. However, the Lightning’s second line of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson has done most of the heavy lifting, skating against the opponents top line. Not only has that trio outscored the opposition (9 to 5) during this playoff run, they also have the edge in scoring chances (64 to 52), including those from the slot and the crease (23 to 15).
On the Tampa power play, it’s Miller time: The Lightning’s power play was one of the best this season, both during the regular season and playoffs, but if Washington’s penalty kill gets preoccupied with Stamkos and Kucherov, it might be J.T. Miller who becomes the hero. The former New York Ranger has 11 scoring chances in the playoffs with the man advantage, second on the team after Kucherov, with a team-high six from the high-danger areas. He’s a playmaker, too, and helps Tampa Bay generate chances from the right half wall and down low near the goal line.
Forecheck it out: Tampa Bay uses a “wide” 1-2-2 forecheck which could slow the Caps through the neutral zone. It works by having the first forward (F1) steer the opposing puck handler to one side with the two other forwards (F2 and F3) lingering in the neutral zone far apart from each other, or “wide,” to take away forward passing lanes. The Lightning’s defensemen (D1 and D2), on the other hand, keep a tight gap in the middle of the ice, looking to intercept passes.
This forecheck forced the Bruins forwards to dump the puck in the offensive zone rather than enter with control, and also forced Boston’s puck carriers into turnovers, resulting in odd-man rushes the other way. During the regular season, Boston attempted 54 percent of all even-strength shots on net and 55 percent of all scoring chances in their games, both the highest marks in the NHL. In the series against Tampa Bay they were outshot 125 to 99 and saw fewer scoring chances, 108 to 83.
The way Washington counters Tampa Bay’s 1-2-2 wide forecheck is by either taking advantage when one of the Lightning defensemen pinches and then counterattacks, puts pressure on the boards (via a drop pass to one of its forwards skating through the neutral zone) or by getting its defensemen more involved in attacking the zone. This could actually work well for Washington, since according to zone-entry data compiled by Corey Sznajder and Sean Tierny, John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov are both good at gaining entry to the offensive zone with possession.
Some still rock the red: While Tampa Bay instituted a strict dress code for fans stating they weren’t allowed to wear red in some parts of Amalie Arena during the series, there was a fair amount of red clothing scattered throughout the arena and near the glass during warm-ups (though most arenas allow all ticket holders close to the glass pregame, then clear them out). The dress code affects about 10 percent of Amalie Arena seating and fans are to abide by these rules in the Lightning’s Lexus Lounge, which includes seats against the glass, or in the Chase Club luxury suites.
Backstrom out, but Caps get two top forwards back: Nicklas Backstrom will miss a second straight game with a right hand injury. Backstrom skated with some light stickhandling on Thursday morning, but he wasn’t on the ice with the team on Friday. Center Lars Eller will center a second line with wingers T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana. The Capitals will also have Tom Wilson back from suspension, and Andre Burakovsky is back in the lineup after missing the past 10 games with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury.
Immerse yourself in the Capitals’ postseason with The Post’s coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs:
Washington’s expected lineup
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana-Lars Eller-T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky-Chandler Stephenson-Brett Connolly
Devante Smith-Pelly-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Michal Kempny-John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik-Christian Djoos
Braden Holtby (starter)
Tampa Bay’s expected lineup
J.T. Miller-Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov
Ondrej Palat-Brayden Point-Tyler Johnson
Alex Killorn-Anthony Cirelli-Yanni Gourde
Chris Kunitz-Cedric Paquette-Ryan Callahan
Victor Hedman-Dan Girardi
Ryan McDonagh-Anton Stralman
Braydon Coburn-Mikahil Sergachev
Andrei Vasilevskiy (starter)