Eastern Conference finals: Game 3
• Highlights: The Lightning got two power-play goals, one from Steven Stamkos and another from Nikita Kucherov, and another at even strength from Victor Hedman to build a 3-0 lead and led throughout. (Read more)
• Postgame reading: Center Jay Beagle is “probably the most respected guy” in the Capitals’ locker room, and this could be a last run with Washington for the pending unrestricted free agent. (Read more)
There was a broom at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility Tuesday morning. A group of overeager fans asked injured center Nicklas Backstrom to sign it, hopeful for a sweep in the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Though Washington remains in control of the series, the Capitals’ 4-2 loss to the Lightning in Game 3 ensured this won’t be a sweep, not that the team ever really expected the matchup to be easy. Players anticipated a desperate Tampa Bay team on Tuesday night at Capital One Arena after the Lightning dropped the first two games of the series in its home arena. Costly penalties and a leaky penalty kill just made it a little easier for Tampa Bay to take the third game and cut Washington’s lead in this best-of-seven series to 2-1.
“No one expected 4-0, right?” Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “We all know it’s going to be a tough series. We just have to relax a little bit and stay positive. It’s still fun.”
Though teams have a 21-0 series record when they have won the first two games on the road in the final two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Capitals know how quickly things can change. They fell into a two-games-to-none hole after losing both games in Washington in the first round against Columbus, but then reeled off four straight wins. The Capitals expected a Lightning squad that won the most games in the NHL during the regular season to respond in Game 3, and for the first time in the series, Tampa Bay scored the first goal.
Goaltender Braden Holtby was called for tripping Tampa Bay forward Yanni Gourde, and after defenseman Brooks Orpik whiffed on his attempt to clear the puck out of the Washington zone, the puck made its way to center Steven Stamkos in the left faceoff circle. His one-timer was a laser, a shot Holtby had no chance of stopping.
On Tuesday morning, Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper lamented how little his team had played with the lead through the first two games. Washington had been starting strong throughout the playoffs, scoring first in all but three of its postseason games entering Game 3.
“You have to make them play catch-up because when they do have the lead, they sit back,” Cooper said before the game. “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. If you want to have a chance to open things up for yourself, make sure you get the lead.”
The Lightning was able to do just that thanks to its power play. Less than two minutes into the second period, Capitals center Lars Eller was called for closing his hand on the puck, and it was a one-timer from the opposite circle that got past Holtby this time. Defenseman Victor Hedman set up a Nikita Kucherov one-timer to lift Tampa Bay to a 2-0 lead, the Lightning’s first edge of more than one goal in the series.
“It’s kind of like we have [Alex Ovechkin] on that one side, and they kind of have it on both sides” with Stamkos and Kucherov, Orpik said. “You take one guy away, and it leaves the other guy open.”
For Washington, Eller’s infraction marked a 60th minor penalty in these playoffs, which is a postseason high. Because the puck movement on the Lightning’s power play has given the Capitals fits, discipline becomes even more important. Though Tampa Bay’s power play had been overshadowed by Washington’s in the first two games, the Lightning scored three goals on seven opportunities. It was 2 for 5 on Tuesday night, which meant it got too many looks in Coach Barry Trotz’s opinion.
“To get back in a game, it took a lot of flow out of our game,” Trotz said.
Less than two minutes after Kucherov’s power-play goal, Hedman made it a three-goal deficit for Washington with just the second even-strength goal Tampa Bay has scored in the series. A home arena that had been anxious for its first conference final game in 20 years deflated.
Meanwhile, the Capitals’ power play, hot all postseason with a goal in all but two games entering Game 3, couldn’t convert. Brett Connolly narrowed the deficit with his wrister midway through the second period, and that seemed to shift momentum in Washington’s favor. The Capitals got a power play less than three minutes later, but Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped all three shots he faced during it. Brayden Point’s shot through Chandler Stephenson’s legs then made it a 4-1 game before second intermission.
“I don’t think they were more desperate,” Ovechkin said. “They just scored power-play goals, and we didn’t.”
The pushback from Tampa Bay was expected, and though Washington couldn’t match on Tuesday night, the margin for error will be slimmer in Thursday’s Game 4, when the Capitals would prefer to push the Lightning to the brink of elimination rather than return to Tampa Bay with the series tied.
“Nobody said it was going to be easy,” Ovechkin said. “We was ready for it, and nobody going to give up.”
It’s a series: For the first time in three games, the Lightning looked a little something like the team that led the Eastern Conference with 113 points during the regular season and stormed through the first two rounds of the playoffs against the Devils and Bruins. Tampa Bay scored first for the first time in the series and took a 3-0 lead with a pair of goals less than two minutes apart early in the second period. The Capitals have never swept a best-of-seven series and they’ll have to wait until at least the next round — whether that’s this season or next — to change that. The Lightning’s dominating win also ensures that the Eastern Conference finals will return to Tampa Bay for at least one more game. Game 4 is Thursday in Chinatown.
Special teams disparity: The Lightning and Capitals entered Game 3 with similarly well-performing power plays, and while Tampa Bay stayed hot with the man advantage, Washington fizzled. Steven Stamkos opened the scoring with his third power play goal of the series in the first period, while Nikita Kucherov added to the Lightning’s lead with a power-play strike early in the second. Tampa Bay, which benefited from six Capitals penalties and went 2-for-5 on the power play, also scored two goals at even strength, more than it had in the first two games combined. The Capitals went 0-for-3 with the man advantage.
Andrei Vasilevskiy rebounds: Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was pulled during the second intermission of Game 1 and looked shaky while allowing six goals on Sunday, returned to the form that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist this season. The 23-year-old Russian stopped all 14 Capitals shots in the first period and 36 of 38 shots in the game. Washington’s first goal, a Brett Connolly tally midway through the second period, came after officials missed what should have been an icing call.
Home-ice advantage?: With the Capitals playing at home for the first time in 10 days and hosting an Eastern Conference finals game for the first time since June 2, 1998, Capital One Center was rocking for Game 3. Most of the sellout crowd went home disappointed after Washington fell to 3-4 in their home rink this postseason. Home teams are now 33-39 in the playoffs this year, which would rank as the second-worst winning percentage since 1968 according to ESPN Stats and Information. What’s more, the Capitals remained winless and have been outscored 20-11 in six playoff home games against the Lightning all-time.
Final: Lightning 4, Capitals 2
The Caps injected a glimmer of hope with a late goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov, but it was an overall uninspired effort after Tampa built a 3-0 lead and captured a much-needed win to keep the series in striking distance. The next game is Thursday at Washington’s Capital One Arena.
Some hope: With Braden Holtby on the bench and an extra skater on the ice with a little more than three minutes remaining and the Capitals trailing by three, Evgeny Kuznetsov buried a shot from a ridiculous angle into the top of the net past Andrei Vasilevskiy to keep things somewhat interesting.
Penalties galore: It’s hard to mount a comeback when you’re constantly killing penalties, but that’s been the story for the Capitals for much of the night. After killing off Evgeny Kuznetsov’s penalty for high-sticking, Washington has six minutes to make it a game.
Tick, tock: The Capitals killed off Tampa Bay’s most recent power play, but with 8:50 remaining, they’ll need to spend less time in the penalty box and more time in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy if they’re to cut into the Lightning’s 4-1 lead. Washington continues to have an advantage in shots, 29-21.
Four-on-three: Steven Stamkos returned to the ice shortly after taking a slap shot off his leg, but he’ll get a two-minute breather in the penalty box along with Lars Eller after they were issued coincidental minors for roughing with 12:59 to play in the game. Only 16 seconds later, Michal Kempny joined Eller in the box for cross-checking Tyler Johnson, giving Tampa Bay yet another power play chance.
An opportunity for the Caps: With four minutes gone by in the third period, NBC Sports Network’s Pierre McGuire reported that Lighting center Steven Stamkos headed to the locker room after taking a slapshot off his leg. Seconds later, an Alex Killorn penalty for interference gave the Capitals their third power play of the game. It didn’t help. Washington managed a single shot over the next two minutes and is now 0-for-3 with the man advantage in Game 3.
NBC analysts lay into Caps: NBC Sports Network analyst Jeremy Roenick had a lot to say about the Capitals during the second intermission, none of it positive.
“I can go on for more than just the five minutes that we have,” Roenick said. “This is a team that we talk about that shows up and just thinks that they can step on the ice because they’re talented and win. It’s the same team we’ve talked about not taking advantage of a situation to bury a team.”
Roenick went on to criticize Dmitry Orlov for his defensive play and sloppiness with the puck, and the Capitals’ efforts on faceoffs.
“It’s too nonchalant,” Roenick said. “This team is not prepared to work and now they’re down 4-1 in a crucial game, and you’re giving a team that’s very talented something to get excited about. We’ve seen it before. They’re going to look back at this game and say, ‘Oh no.’”
A silver lining for the team in red: Want a bright spot for Washington? How about the play of Christian Djoos. The young blueliner was dangling the puck like a pro early in the game and has created three scoring chances of his own. Plus, Djoos has been on the ice for a 6 to 1 shot advantage and 5 to 0 scoring-chance advantage at even strength.
End Period 3: Lightning 4, Capitals 1
After falling behind 3-0 on a pair of Lightning goals scored less than two minutes apart, the Capitals’ appeared to have regained some momentum on Brett Connolly’s one-timer midway through the period. Instead, Tampa Bay will take a 4-1 lead into the second intermission, thanks to Brayden Point’s shot that traveled between Chandler Stephenson’s legs en route to the back of the net. The Lightning only had eight shots in the second period, but it scored on three of them.
Through the legs: Off a faceoff in the Capitals’ zone that led to a scrum to Braden Holtby’s right, Brayden Point whipped a shot between Chandler Stephenson’s legs and past the Capitals’ goalie for a 4-1 Lightning lead with less than four minutes to play in the second.
Caps to the power play, but again come up empty: Lightning Coach Jon Cooper lamented all of the odd-man rushes his team allowed in the first two games of the series. While Tampa Bay did a better job taking care of the puck and denying such opportunities in the first period of Game 3, the Capitals had a golden opportunity on a three-on-one more than halfway through the second period. Alex Ovechkin found Christian Djoos in front of the net, but Andrei Vasilevskiy made the save. The saving grace for Washington was that the opportunity came during a delayed roughing penalty on Ryan Callahan, resulting in the Capitals’ second power play of the game. They did not, however, convert.
Washington gets one back: Perhaps fueled by its first successful penalty kill of the night, Washington cut the Tampa Bay lead to 3-1 and got the crowd back into it with Brett Connolly’s one-timer off a pass by Chandler Stephenson. Connolly’s fourth goal of the postseason, which came with 9:29 remaining in the period, was made possible by Matt Niskanen’s keep-in at the blue line on an attempted clearing attempt by the Lightning. It was appreciated by the crowd, even if NBC labeled the goal-scorer as “Tim” Connolly.
Caps finally get a kill: The “Let’s go Caps!” chants inside Capital One Arena switched to a smattering of boos after Lars Eller was whistled for slashing 6:44 into the second period. Eller knows better than anyone that giving the Lightning a power play is playing with fire, as Tampa Bay scored its second goal of the game on his delay of game penalty five minutes earlier. This time, the Capitals’ penalty-kill unit bailed out Eller to keep the Capitals’ deficit at three.
Capitals’ top line MIA: Alex Ovechkin’s line had tilted the ice in their favor for the first two games, but the Caps top line is struggling right now. Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson have been on the ice for seven shot attempts, five of those scoring chances, and now a goal against. They only have five shot attempts and two scoring chances of their own.
Make it three: It didn’t take long for Tampa Bay to strike again, this time for its second even strength goal of the series and a 3-0 lead. One minute and 40 seconds after Nikita Kucherov scored on the power play, the Lightning winger set up defenseman Victor Hedman’s one-timer into a wide-open net.
Caps penalty leads to another goal: Less than two minutes into the second period, Lars Eller received a two-minute minor for delay of game for closing his hand around the puck in the Capitals’ zone. Sixteen seconds into the ensuing power play, Nikita Kucherov blasted a shot past Brooks Orpik and between Braden Holtby and the right post to give Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead. The Lightning is now a sizzling 5-for-9 with the man advantage in the series.
Tampa turning the tide?: After dominating play at even strength for the first two games, Washington was outplayed by Tampa Bay in the first period of Game 3. The Lightning held a 8 to 7 edge in scoring chances, with three of those originating in the slot and the crease, plus had four odd-man rushes, double what they had in the first two games of the series combined.
Give some credit to Lightning Coach Jon Cooper, who shuffled his forward lines in an effort to spark the team. So far it’s working. His second line of Tyler Johnson, Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde outshot the Capitals 4-0 with a 2-0 advantage in high-danger chances.
End Period 1: Lightning 1, Capitals 0
At the first intermission, the Capitals find themselves in a rare position of late: trailing. Tampa Bay led for fewer than 12 minutes over the first two games after they took a 2-1 lead in the first period of Game 2. Once again, the Capitals were burned by Tampa Bay’s power play. While Washington has outscored Tampa Bay 7-1 at five-on-five in the series, the Lightning improved to 4 for 8 with the man advantage on Steven Stamkos’ sixth playoff goal.
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 14 saves for Tampa Bay, with one of the best coming in the final minute on a shot from just outside the crease by Alex Ovechkin. Meanwhile, Braden Holtby stopped nine of 10 Tampa Bay shots. NBC Sports Network analyst Eddie Olczyk noted that Tampa Bay had four odd-man rushes in the period, double the total they had in the first two games combined.
A new, but familiar, script: For the first time this series, Tampa Bay scored first, but they did it in familiar fashion. With 6:07 remaining in the first, Steven Stamkos beat Braden Holtby with the man advantage for a third consecutive game and his league-leading fifth power play goal of the playoffs. The Lightning was 6-1 when scoring first in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Big kill for the Bolts: Washington peppered Andrei Vasilevskiy throughout the man advantage, but the Lightning’s goalie and Tampa Bay’s struggling penalty-kill unit in front of him managed to keep the game tied.
Braden Holtby, two minutes for tripping: The Capitals’ goalie has stopped all six shots he’s faced in Game 3, but his first penalty of the postseason with 7:03 remaining in the period gave Tampa Bay’s power play unit its first opportunity of the night. The Lightning is 3 for 7 with the man advantage in the series and has scored at least one power play goal in seven consecutive games.
First power play to the Caps: Anton Stralman crunched Tom Wilson into the boards with 11:02 remaining in the first period, perhaps as payback for Wilson’s big hit on Tyler Johnson a few minutes earlier. Stralman was whistled for boarding on the play, giving the Capitals’ power play (3 for 7 in the series) its first chance of Game 3.
A chance, at last, for Tampa Bay: The Lightning have struggled to generate much of anything offensively at full strength every bit as much as they did in Games 1 and 2. Tampa Bay’s first shot of the game came nearly seven minutes into the period by Tyler Johnson, who was subsequently crushed with a (legal) hit by Tom Wilson for his troubles. Seconds later, Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, who faced 35 shots on Sunday, gloved Tampa Bay’s second chance of the night.
Caps applying the pressure: The first sustained offensive zone time of Game 3 belonged to the Capitals, who registered the night’s first shot on goal on a wrister by Dmitry Orlov that caught Andrei Vasilevskiy square in the chest. Less than two minutes later, the Lightning’s goalie gloved a slapper by Evgeny Kuznetsov. Five minutes into the first period, the Capitals had a 4-0 advantage in shots on home ice.
Alex Ovechkin is getting dirty (sort of): Ovechkin is known for his one-timers on or near the left-hand face off dot on the power play, but in Game 2 against Tampa Bay he was making sure his shot attempts were from the “dirty” parts of the ice at even strength. Ovechkin not only scored his lone 5-on-5 goal from the slot (off the rush), he also had two quality chances in the crease, two shots blocked in the slot and one more missed attempt in the high slot. His teammate, Brett Connolly added five more shot attempts in the slot with one, the team’s sixth goal of the night, getting past Andrei Vasilevskiy midway through the third period.
Lars Eller looms large: If you are seeking an X-factor in this series, look no further than Washington Capitals center Lars Eller. Eller, a bottom-six skater filling in on the second line for an injured Nicklas Backstrom, is tied with Alex Ovechkin for the team lead in goals scored (two) and total points (four) in addition to creating more high-danger chances overall. He’s also one of three Washington skaters that has drawn two penalties over the last two games.
He and his linemates, Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie, have also outscored Tampa Bay 1-0 at even strength, but that total should be higher considering Washington’s trio also has the edge in scoring chances (17 to 5) and shot attempts in the slot or crease (6 to 0) during the Eastern Conference finals. The Capitals’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson, by comparison, have a much stronger advantage in even-strength goals (3 to 1) but nowhere near as dominant a showing in scoring chances (14 to 11) or high-danger shot attempts (3 to 4).
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)