The Tampa Bay Lightning’s penalty killers were sucking wind as they skated back to the locker room for the first intermission, having suppressed three Washington Capitals power plays over the final 10 minutes of the first period in Thursday night’s Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. But they appeared to reach their breaking point just over seven minutes into the second period, when star defenseman Victor Hedman was called for tripping with the score tied, giving the Capitals a prime power-play opportunity to seize the lead and the upper hand in the series.
Capital One Arena was perhaps the loudest it had been all postseason at that point, and shorthanded Tampa Bay’s problems were compounded when defenseman Braydon Coburn snapped his stick in half early in the power play. But this was a group, after struggling as one of the worst in the NHL in the regular season, that came prepared even for that unlikely circumstance — so 5-foot-8 Tyler Johnson handed the 6-5 Coburn his tiny stick, then frantically shadowed Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin without a stick for the rest of the power play. It worked: Ovechkin didn’t get a shot, and Washington never got a quality look as Coburn helped anchor the defense in front of the net.
It was a pivotal sequence in Tampa Bay’s 4-2 win, a victory that tied the series at 2 and will be remembered as a masterpiece by goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made countless acrobatic saves to bail out a team that was outplayed for long stretches.
Vasilevskiy received heat for his porous performances in losses in Games 1 and 2, which his teammates essentially attributed to the play in front of him; the penalty killers Thursday night at least could argue that they had helped their goaltender with what Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos called “desperation.”
“It starts with your goaltender, and then it starts with guys willing to sacrifice,” Stamkos said, trying to trace the reasons this unit has improved drastically over the past two games, killing off all seven of Washington’s power play opportunities. That’s certainly a departure from earlier in the playoffs and even earlier in this series, when Tampa Bay allowed a total of three power-play goals in home losses in the first two games, looking at times like the unit that ranked 28th in penalty killing (76.1 percent) in the regular season. As late as February, Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper simply called the penalty kill woes a “sore subject.”
It remained somewhat of a tender topic through the first two games against Washington, which poses so many matchup problems with its power play with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who tied the score at 2 on Thursday night less than two minutes before Hedman committed his penalty. The matchup became even more difficult in Game 4 with the return of Washington center Nicklas Backstrom after a four-game absence with a hand injury.
“You have to give something up. You just have to pick the lesser of the evils,” Tampa Bay center Alex Killorn said. “For us, we want to take away Ovechkin. He’s been really good on the power play.”
So after killing three first-period power plays — in which Tampa Bay’s penalty killers scrambled to block shots with their bodies and clear pucks at every turn — the fourth was trickier without Hedman, perhaps the team’s most versatile player. The five-on-four advantage essentially extended to five-on-three when Coburn lost his stick near the boards. Johnson quickly skated over to him and handed him his stick so Coburn could play down low with a blade, no matter how ridiculously small it looked in his hands. Then Johnson had to latch on and pester one of the world’s best players without a stick himself.
“You’re just trying to eat shots if [Ovechkin] is shooting it. That’s kind of your job, that’s your responsibility, and you have to do whatever you can,” Johnson said. “Luckily the other guys played it really well, so we didn’t really give much up when that happened.”
That set up a resurgent third period. It was Killorn who scored the game-winning goal just six seconds after Washington had killed a penalty midway through the third period. Tampa Bay’s power play was again sharp, with Stamkos driving home another goal on an assist from Brayden Point in the first period. The execution level of that group has only motivated the penalty killers to elevate their game. It was crucial that they did so Thursday night as the Lightning committed a string of penalties and relied heavily on Vasilevskiy.
“There are times when you’re going to give up chances. But hopefully you’re just giving up a ‘B’ chance. Don’t give up the ‘A’ chances,” Cooper said of the penalty kill unit. “And that’s where our guys have been really good.”