• The Capitals erased a 2-1 Lightning lead early in the second period and never looked back, scoring five straight goals to prevail 6-2 and take a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference finals. (Read more)
• With Backstrom injured, center Lars Eller has thrived with more responsibility. (Read more)
TAMPA — The Washington Capitals have developed a tradition — born out of superstition — for their road playoff games. A morning skate can’t start without captain Alex Ovechkin sprinting around the rink, a solo lap to the sound of sticks tapping from his teammates, hockey’s version of cheering. Once Ovechkin goes all the way around, the rest of the team hops onto the ice to join him.
With one road win after another, the Capitals have kept the ritual going. And for a second straight game at Amalie Arena, Ovechkin could be found fist-bumping, celebrating a key goal and looking right at home in the opposition’s arena. Washington beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 6-2, on Sunday in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, and the Capitals have a commanding two-games-to-none series lead with the next two games at Washington’s Capital One Arena on Tuesday and Thursday.
Against a team that won more games than any other in the NHL this season, the Capitals improbably have dominated play through two games while overcoming an injury to one of their best players. On Sunday night, they also had to weather some questionable officiating early in the game. One thing they have had going for them all postseason: They are 7-1 on the road.
“I feel like we spend much more time together on the road, and it show up in our game,” said center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who finished with a goal and two assists. “But overall for us, it doesn’t matter where we play, who we play against. It’s our game.”
Players suggested that perhaps Washington’s game gets simpler on the road, when the opposing team has more control of the matchups with the last change. The Capitals might not feel as much pressure as they do in front of their home fans. Maybe that’s why Washington has been able to continue winning even as top center Nicklas Backstrom has missed three games with a right hand injury.
Lars Eller has seen an uptick in minutes and responsibility with Backstrom out, anchoring wingers T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana as well as moving onto the top power-play unit. He also is one of the Capitals’ top penalty killers. He has thrived in the bigger role, and with Sunday’s game tied, Eller redirected Vrana’s centering pass to lift Washington to a 3-2 lead with just 1:02 left in the second period. Eller has six points in the past four games, and he has been playing among the most minutes of Washington’s forwards with Backstrom out.
“I embrace when there’s more on the line and the stakes are higher,” Eller said. “I always like that, and I think that it brings out the best in me. Now with Nick out, I’ve just been playing more minutes. The role is not that much different; I think it’s just I’m out there more.”
Less than a minute after his goal, Eller took a key power-play draw for the Capitals. Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy had been whistled for tripping forward Andre Burakovsky, putting Washington on the power play with less than 10 seconds left before intermission. Two nights earlier, the Capitals had executed a play off a man-advantage for a goal with less than eight seconds left in a period. They pulled it off again after Eller won the faceoff. Kuznetsov collected the rebound from Ovechkin’s shot, and Kuznetsov’s shot from the half wall went off the stick of Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh and under Vasilevskiy’s pad with less than three seconds to play.
“You’d think we’d learn from our mistake in Game 1,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said, “but they get one, and that’s really a killer going down 4-2 instead of 3-2. It’s little details of the game at this time of the year, and they’ve executed, and we haven’t.”
After those two goals in the last 1:02 of the second period, Washington piled it on in the third with goals from Ovechkin and Brett Connolly, a former Lightning player. By the time the game was over, the specks of fans wearing Washington red seemed more prominent because so many wearing Tampa Bay blue had bolted for the exits.
“They look like they’re frustrated a little but over there,” Connolly said.
Though Kuznetsov’s power-play goal was the game’s turning point, the Capitals fumed over a pair of calls that went against them in the first period. Tom Wilson redirected in a Matt Niskanen shot to give Washington a 1-0 lead just 28 seconds into the game, but then Wilson tumbled into Vasilevskiy less than seven minutes later. He was assessed a goaltender interference penalty, though the Capitals argued that Lightning forward Chris Kunitz hooked Wilson as he was driving the net and that’s what caused Wilson to fall into Vasilevskiy.
Just 20 seconds into the power play, Niskanen blocked a pass from Stamkos, but the puck bounced off Niskanen’s skate and right to Brayden Point in the high slot. With goaltender Braden Holtby still turned toward Stamkos, Point had a wide-open net and didn’t miss, tying the game 7:08 into the first period.
Though the penalty call on Wilson was questionable, the next infraction assessed on Washington was clearly an incorrect one by the officials. Less than two minutes after Point’s goal, Oshie was called for high-sticking Victor Hedman. Ovechkin immediately objected, skating over to the referee to voice his displeasure. A video replay showed that Hedman actually was clipped by a puck in the face, not Oshie’s stick, but the call stood anyway. Ovechkin started sarcastically clapping on the ice.
“They’re not going to reverse it,” Connolly said. “[The officials] knew after. I’m sure they saw it. But sometimes you’ve just got to go up to the ref and say, ‘Hey, it’s okay. It’s fine.’ It happens, and we just kept pushing.”
Though the Tampa Bay power play scored again to lift the Lightning to a 2-1 lead at 10:22, the Capitals recognized that they had outplayed Tampa Bay at even strength to that point. That paid off less than three minutes into the second period, when fourth-liners Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelly had a two-on-one. Chiasson’s pass went off Tampa Bay defenseman Mikhail Sergachev’s stick, but Smith-Pelly still corralled the puck to shoot it past Vasilevskiy and tie the game.
And then the Capitals settled into their road routine as if they were right at home.
“I can’t wait to go home and play the game,” Ovechkin said. “The fans are going to be all over the place, and we’ve waited for this moment for a long time. It’s going to be pretty cool and pretty special.”
Strong second period: The Capitals took control of Game 2, and perhaps the series, by outscoring the Lightning 3-0 in the second 20 minutes of Sunday’s game. Two of those goals came in the final 62 seconds of the frame, as Lars Eller tipped a Jakub Vrana pass past Andrei Vasilevskiy and, three seconds before intermission, Evgeny Kuznetsov put a bad-angle shot into the back of the net on a deflection off the Tampa Bay goaltender. For the second consecutive game, the Capitals took a multi-goal lead into the final period. Unlike Friday, they would only add to their advantage. Historically, teams that have won the first two games of the conference finals on the road have gone on to win the series 18 out of 19 times.
No Backstrom, no problem: Nicklas Backstrom missed his third consecutive game with a hand injury, and while the Capitals can’t wait to welcome their all-star center back to the ice, they’re undefeated without him this postseason. Eller continues to be a big reason why. Filling Backstrom’s usual spot on Washington’s second line alongside Vrana and T.J. Oshie, Eller had two assists and scored his second goal of the series, which proved to be the game-winner. Kuznetsov, Washington’s top-line center, also continued his strong postseason with his eighth goal to go along with two assists.
Road-ice advantage: The Capitals improved to 7-1 on the road this postseason after dealing Tampa Bay its second consecutive loss — and third overall — in eight playoff games at Amalie Arena. Washington was always going to need at least one win in Tampa Bay to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals; now, the Capitals will head back to D.C. with a 2-0 series lead and a chance to sweep a best-of-seven series for the first time in franchise history. Washington is 3-3 at Capital One Arena this postseason. Florida is lovely this time of year, but safe to say the Capitals would rather not return.
Brushing off bad breaks: Given the final score, it’s easy to forget the Capitals trailed 2-1 after the first period. Both of the Lightning’s goals came on power plays they probably didn’t deserve. Tampa Bay’s first man advantage came after Tom Wilson collided with Vasilevskiy, a play that NBC Sports Network analysts Mike Milbury and Eddie Olczyk agreed should’ve resulted in a penalty on the Lightning’s Chris Kunitz. Tampa Bay’s second power play came after a high-sticking penalty on T.J. Oshie, despite the fact that the puck — not Oshie’s stick — struck Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman in the face. The Capitals killed off the Lightning’s other two power plays in the game and completely dominated even strength play.
Final: Capitals 6, Lightning 2
Washington fell behind 2-1 after two power-play goals from Tampa, but then scored four straight goals to take a commanding 2-0 series lead heading back to D.C. for Games 3 and 4. Simply put, after the first intermission, this was total domination by the Capitals.
“It’s not even close,” NBC analyst Ed Olczyk said after the game, referring to Washington’s dominance.
Stop the fight: Lightning fans headed for the exits at Amalie Arena with 7:03 remaining after Brett Connolly whipped a shot over Andrei Vasilevskiy’s right shoulder and into the back of the net for a 6-2 Washington lead.
Braden Holtby on Point: The Lightning’s lethal power play unit had a chance to cut into Washington’s lead after Michal Kempny was whistled for cross-checking seven minutes into the third period, but Braden Holtby stopped all three Tampa Bay shots with the man advantage, including a couple of point-blank chances for center Brayden Point.
Capitals continue to pull away: Washington added to its lead less than four minutes into the third period when Alex Ovechkin buried a shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy off a two-on-one pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov. It’s now 5-2 Capitals.
End Period 3: Capitals 4, Lightning 2
Washington is making things very difficult on Andrei Vasilevskiy, both at even strength and on the power play. Six different skaters have at least one shot in the slot or crease — the Lightning have three — and although T.J. Oshie and Devante Smith-Pelly aren’t among them, those two have combined to create five more scoring chances, including a second-period goal by Smith-Pelly.
Kuznetsov makes it 4-2: A late power play for Washington turned into a late goal, with another goal for Washington in the final ten seconds. What looked like a centering pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov bounced off Andrei Vasilevskiy’s pads and into the goal to put Washington ahead 4-2 just seconds before the period’s end. Kuznetsov’s shot came seven seconds after the Lightning goaltender took a penalty for tripping Andre Burakovsky.
Washington surges back in front on Eller goal: Lars Eller tipped home a centering feed by Jakub Vrana to put the Capitals up 3-2 with 1:02 remaining the second period.
A kill for the Caps: For the first time tonight, the Capitals killed off a Lightning power play. With 4:12 remaining in the second period, Michal Kempny was whistled for interference after colliding with Steven Stamkos behind the net. Stamkos had Tampa Bay’s best chance on the ensuing power play, a one-timer from the left faceoff circle, but Braden Holtby was in position to make a relatively easy save.
Bolts face a rare penalty kill: Washington’s first power play of the game came with 8:13 remaining in the second period after a hooking penalty on Yanni Gourde. The Capitals, who were 2-for-4 with the man advantage on Friday, had a couple of solid chances over the next two minutes, but Andrei Vasilevskiy made a save on an Alex Ovechkin shot from the Capitals’ captain’s favorite spot and turned away an Evgeny Kuznetsov chance in front of the net to keep the score tied.
A chance for the Caps: With the teams skating 4-on-4 after coincidental minors on Cedric Paquette and Jay Beagle for roughing, the Capitals had a mini advantage after Lightning center Brayden Point lost his stick in the defensive zone. Tampa Bay survived the shift to keep things tied 2-2 when Andrei Vasilevskiy slid across the crease to gobble up a one-timer by Dmitry Orlov. The Capitals are still awaiting their first power play of the night.
Two-on-one = 2-2: Less than three minutes into the second period, Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly beat Andrei Vasilevsky glove side with a one-timer off a perfect pass from Alex Chiasson to tie the game.
End Period 1: Lightning 2, Capitals 1
The Capitals jumped out to a 1-0 lead for the 11th time in 14 games this postseason, but Tampa Bay responded with a pair of power-play goals, the second one coming after a high-sticking penalty on T.J. Oshie that, upon closer inspection on replay review, shouldn’t been called. The Lightning has a 2-1 lead and a 13-10 advantage in shots on goal after 20 minutes.
Power plays make an early difference: The two power-play goals for Tampa Bay were huge, but at even strength, the Capitals were the better team in the first period. Washington had the edge in goals (1-0), scoring chances (9 to 6) and chances in the slot or crease (3 to 1) — that will put a team on the winning side of the ledger more often than not.
Ovechkin has also been strong on the puck to start. The Great Eight has four shot attempts, one hit and one blocked shot. Plus, his line has seen a 5 to 3 advantage in scoring chances, mostly skating against Ryan Callahan’s line at even strength.
Lightning looking like a different team: Tampa Bay appears to have shaken off the rust it showed for most of Game 1. After managing only only 10 shots through two periods on Friday, the Lightning has nine shots and a pair of power play goals against Braden Holtby with 3:15 remaining in the first period. At the other end, Andrei Vasilevskiy has turned away nine of 10 Capitals shots, including an impressive kick save on a one-timer by Lars Eller.
And the Oscar goes to…: Tampa Bay went to the power play again with 11:34 remaining in the first period after T.J. Oshie was sent off for high-sticking. While Oshie appeared to catch nothing but puck with his stick in the Tampa Bay zone, Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman reacted as if he were struck in the face, and his acting job was good enough to fool the officials. It cost the Caps, as Steven Stamkos scored in the waning seconds of the power play to put Tampa up, 2-1. With five seconds remaining on Oshie’s phantom high-sticking penalty, the Lightning demonstrated why its power play was one of the best in the league all season. Stamkos one-timed his fifth goal of the postseason past Braden Holtby after precision passes from Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov.
Tom Wilson penalty takes Caps’ lead away: Tom Wilson was sent to the penalty box after crashing into Andrei Vasilevskiy 6:48 into the first period, giving the Lightning the first power play of the game. “I didn’t even hit him,” Wilson could be heard saying after the referee blew his whistle. It didn’t matter. Wilson sat in the box and Brayden Point put a rebound into a wide open net to tie the game at 1. Tampa Bay, which was 1 for 3 with the man advantage in Game 1, needed only 20 seconds to tie the game on Point’s fifth goal of the playoffs.
Like lightning, Capitals strike for 1-0 lead: Andrei Vasilevskiy’s nightmarish start to the Eastern Conference finals continued Sunday. It took the Capitals 28 seconds to score against the Lightning goaltender, who was pulled during the second intermission in Game 1. Tom Wilson deflected a Matt Niskanen shot from the point into the back of the net for his third goal of the playoffs. Washington is 7-3 when scoring first this postseason.
Beware of bracelets?: Fans attending Game 2 at Amalie Arena were each given light-up bracelets in addition to “Go Bolts” signs that can be folded into noise-clapping posters. Capitals fans will remember the bracelet incident of 2016, when Philadelphia Flyers’ fans rained down similar bracelets onto the ice at Wells Fargo Center in a 6-1 Capitals win during Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs. Disgruntled Flyers’ fans started throwing bracelets after the Capitals took a 4-1 lead, and again after the score became 5-1, with one hitting defenseman Dmitry Orlov. The Flyers were assessed a delay-of-game penalty.
Nicklas Backstrom officially out: Center Nicklas Backstrom will miss a third straight game for the Capitals because of a right-hand injury. They’ve won the past two playoff games without him, and Lars Eller’s strong play in a second-line center role has a lot to do with that. Backstrom was on the ice for Sunday’s morning skate, an encouraging sign he could be nearing a return to the lineup. Coach Barry Trotz said he’s optimistic Backstrom will play in this Eastern Conference final.
Holtby for Conn Smythe?: Braden Holtby has a case to be the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The former Vezina winner has stopped 307 of the 332 pucks he’s faced in the postseason, including all but 11 of the high-danger shots he has faced from the slot and the crease. According to the hockey analytics site Corsica, you would expect his save percentage to be .912 based on when and where the shots against have originated, significantly lower than his actual save rate of .925. The two other goaltenders he has faced, Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy, have both underperformed expectations.
Can Tampa fix its broken PK?: Tampa Bay’s penalty kill continued to be a huge liability in Game 1. It has allowed the third-most scoring chances against per 60 minutes among all playoff teams (66.3) and the only two teams that were worse, the Anaheim Ducks and New Jersey Devils, were ousted in the first round. The Lightning allowed two goals and five scoring chances, three from high-danger areas, to the Capitals in Game 1.
Second line has stepped up for Washington: In Nicklas Backstrom’s absence, Washington’s second line of Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie has performed better than expected. The trio hasn’t scored a goal skating 5-on-5, but they have outshot opponents 21 to 7 with a 7 to 3 edge in high-danger chances, indicating better results could be on the horizon.
Speaking of Vrana, no player has more even-strength scoring chances per 60 minutes of play this postseason (13.6) and his 27 scoring chances are tied for second on the team with Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has played 100 more minutes.
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)