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A physical Capitals team runs over Lightning and forces decisive Game 7

Braden Holtby was sensational in earning the shutout. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Eastern Conference finals: Game 6

Washington Capitals 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 0

Series: Tied 3-3

Next game: Wednesday, Capital One Arena, 8 p.m. ET | TV: NBCSN

• The story: The physical Capitals punished the Lightning with an impassioned effort in a must-have Game 6. (Read more)

• Top takeaways: Braden Holtby was flawless in sending the series to a seventh game. (Read more)

• Live analysis: T.J. Oshie finally broke a scoreless tie with a power play goal in the second period, then added an empty-netter to seal it. (Read more)

• Pregame reading: For the Capitals to force a Game 7, goaltender Braden Holtby has to be a hero, columnist Barry Svrluga writes. (Read more)

Physical Capitals run over Lightning to force Game 7
By Isabelle Khurshudyan

The Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup hopes were revived by Alex Ovechkin bulldozing through bodies and by Braden Holtby standing tall in net, by Chandler Stephenson hustling down the ice to negate an icing call and by Devante Smith-Pelly perfectly placing a shot through Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. This was Washington’s most important game of the Stanley Cup playoffs — and of many players’ careers — and the team dominated with a grit born out of urgency.

Capital One Arena’s oft-angsty crowd started singing along to the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” their belief suddenly restored. These Capitals seem to save their best for when they are most desperate, and they staved off elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Monday night with a bruising, hard-earned, 3-0 win to force a Game 7 at Tampa Bay’s Amalie Arena on Wednesday.

The Washington Capitals haven't advanced past Round 2 of the playoffs since 1998. The Post's Neil Greenberg explains what the team needs for a deep playoff run. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

“Going into Game 7, I don’t think I would want another — and I’ve been doing this for a while — I don’t think there’s a team I’ve ever had that I’d want to go into a Game 7 with,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “This team has done a lot of special things this year. It’s grown, and it continues to do that. What an opportunity going into Tampa. We’ve won on the road. We’ve won at home here. We’ll see if we can earn the right to keep playing.”

The Capitals checked the Lightning in every which way throughout the game. They got their first goal with their skill after they were rewarded with their first power play since Game 4. They scored on that lone opportunity, and they got insurance midway through the third period when Stephenson raced down the ice to fight off an icing call, backhanding the puck to a trailing Smith-Pelly in the slot.Washington ultimately didn’t even need the extra cushion. Holtby saved his first shutout of the season, a flawless 24-save outing, for when the Capitals needed it most.

Braden Holtby picks the perfect time to play his best game for the Capitals

“It’s the perfect time,” Smith-Pelly said with a grin.

On Monday morning, Ovechkin said this was “probably” the most important game of his career. “It’s two steps and you’re in the Stanley Cup final,” he said. As if to emphasize the point, he was a one-man wrecking ball to start the game. He knocked 6-foot-6 defenseman Victor Hedman off the puck — and then Yanni Gourde, too. Ovechkin crunched Chris Kunitz against the boards, and he leveled Braydon Coburn behind the net.

“When he’s skating like that and trying to hit somebody, I’m pretty sure it’s not really comfortable,” Kuznetsov said.

Kuznetsov joked that he has “trucks” on both sides of him with Ovechkin and right wing Tom Wilson. Ovechkin had four hits through two periods, and Wilson and Brooks Orpik followed his lead with four more apiece. As the Capitals controlled play, they also made sure the Lightning felt them. When the final horn sounded, Washington had a 39-19 edge in hits, perhaps hoping to wear down Tampa Bay not only in this game, but for the next one, too.

“If it shows up in Game 7 where guys are starting to get tired, then it was all worth it,” Smith-Pelly said.

“It’s desperation really,” Orpik said. “If you don’t win tonight, you’re not moving on. So you try to empty the tank as much as you can. That’s one area where we have an edge, is our size and physical play. Over the course of a seven-game series, it’s something we talk about. Take those opportunities. Don’t get out of position. Try to wear them down when we can.”

The physicality also energized a home crowd that the Capitals have struggled in front of this postseason. Washington was 3-5 at Capital One Arena before Monday night, and each big hit brought approval from the red-clad fans. The first goal of the game brought even more cheering.

Barry Svrluga: Signed for moments just like these, T.J. Oshie cashes in to keep Capitals alive

Coming out of first intermission, Trotz had a word with the officials. Then Ovechkin skated over to conference with them. Washington had gone five full periods without a power play, and the team was clearly frustrated. Then, 13:49 into the second period, Coburn was called for hooking, and forward T.J. Oshie’s one-timer from the slot beat Vasilevskiy 15:12 into the period to give Washington a 1-0 lead. For how frenetic the pace of play was, it was a surprisingly low-scoring game because of the excellent goaltending.

The Capitals have been bested by hot goaltenders in past postseasons, and Vasilevskiy looked poised to enter that lore early in Game 6. With less than a minute left in the opening period, Kuznetsov seemed to have Vasilevskiy beat with the puck in the crease and behind Vasilevskiy’s pad. But Vasilevskiy sprawled across the blue paint and got his glove over in time to deny Kuznetsov’s whack less than 10 feet away from the goal line.

Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy was brilliant once more, but was beaten because his teammates were not

Meanwhile, Holtby held his own at the opposite end. Through the first 12 games Holtby started this postseason, he had an impressive .928 save percentage and a 2.04 goals against average. But in Washington’s previous three games entering Monday, all losses against the Lightning, Holtby had allowed 3.49 goals per game and posted an .844 save percentage, one of the reasons Tampa Bay was able to pull ahead in the series.

He wasn’t tested much through two periods Monday, peppered with just 14 shots, but when the Lightning did get to him, he was sharp. On a Tampa Bay two-on-one 6:15 into the second period, Holtby expertly hugged the left side of his cage, and Anthony Cirelli had no where to place his backhand from point-blank range. With 13 minutes left in the third and the Capitals still ahead by only one, Holtby made a spectacular glove save on an Ondrej Palat slap shot while he was falling down.
A suddenly hopeful crowd chanted his name in appreciation.

“Fans weren’t apprehensive,” Trotz said. “We gave them something to cheer about.”

Top takeaways
By Scott Allen

On to Game 7: Facing elimination for the first time this year, the Capitals forced a Game 7 with an inspired 3-0 victory at Capital One Arena that ended Tampa Bay’s five-game road winning streak and gave Washington its first home playoff win against the Lightning in eight tries. Monday also improved the Capitals to 6-0 in elimination games of the non-Game 7 variety at home during the Alex Ovechkin Era. Now, about the next step, which comes Wednesday at Amalie Arena: the Capitals are 4-11 all-time in Game 7s, including 1-3 on the road.

Braden Holtby steps up: Having been outplayed by Andrei Vasilevskiy since the series shifted to Washington after Game 2, Holtby put an end to Washington’s three-game losing streak with his fifth career playoff shutout and his first since Game 6 of the Capitals’ first-round series against the Flyers in 2016. Vasilevskiy made the more difficult saves, as Washington outshot Tampa Bay for the sixth consecutive game, but Holtby was as steady as he’s been all postseason. He made a flashy glove save on Nikita Kucherov early in the third period when the Capitals’ lead was still 1-0 and finished with 24 saves.

Special teams: The Capitals took a 1-0 lead on T.J. Oshie’s first goal of the series, a power-play snipe with 4:48 to play in the second period off a gorgeous pass by Nicklas Backstrom. It was Washington’s first 5-on-4 opportunity since the second period of Game 4 and the Capitals’ first goal in eight opportunities with the man advantage at home this series. The assist gave Backstrom his first point since returning from a hand injury that caused him to miss five games. Meanwhile, Washington’s penalty-killing unit denied the Lightning a power-play goal for the second straight game, successfully killing off both Tampa Bay chances with the man advantage.

Caps’ captain came to play: “Tonight is the night,” Alex Ovechkin said when asked about the Capitals’ losses in Chinatown in Games 3 and 4 before Game 6. Ovechkin didn’t score, but he was all over the ice and set the tone for the Capitals. “Mark Messier-like,” NBC Sports Network’s Keith Jones said of Ovechkin’s effort during the second intermission. “This guy is an absolute beast.” Ovechkin finished with four shots on goal and four of the Capitals’ 39 hits. He’s now one win from his first ever appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.

In-game analysis

Final: Capitals 3, Lightning 0

The Eastern Conference finals is going the distance. The Capitals put Saturday’s poor performance behind them and earned their first shutout of these playoffs to send the series back to Tampa Bay for a decisive Game 7 on Wednesday.

Oshie again: T.J. Oshie put the result out of doubt with an empty-net goal in the final minute and this series is going to need seven games.

Crunch time: The Capitals’ lead is still 2-0 with 2:14 remaining and Braden Holtby sitting on 21 saves. Can the Lightning muster some late-game magic with the extra skater once Andrei Vasilevskiy heads to the bench, or are we heading back to Tampa for Game 7?

Playing with fire: Trailing 2-0, Tampa Bay’s lethal power play had a chance to get one back after Nicklas Backstrom was sent off for tripping with 8:58 remaining in regulation, but Washington’s penalty-killing unit was up to the task. The Capitals had two of the better scoring chances over the next two minutes, including an odd-man rush led by Jay Beagle after Tampa Bay’s J.T. Miller and Steven Stamkos collided at the blue line.

Some insurance: Just past the midway point of the third, Devante Smith-Pelly gave the Capitals the slightest bit of breathing room by beating Andrei Vasilevskiy off a nifty Chandler Stephenson pass from beyond the net. A minute earlier, Vasilevskiy had given up a juicy rebound on a shot by Jakub Vrana, but Michal Kempny couldn’t get a stick on the bouncing puck with an open net.

Buckle up: With seven minutes gone by in the third period, Braden Holtby gloved a shot by Ondrej Palat and held on, leading to chants of ‘Holt-by! Holt-by!’ From the approving home crowd. Washington failed to clear the zone after the ensuing faceoff and Holtby was forced to make another big save on a shot by Anton Stralman. If you’re a Capitals fan, the final 12 minutes will not go by quickly.

Holtby looking sharp: With 2:32 gone in the third period, Braden Holtby survived his first big test of the frame when he gloved a low shot by Nikita Kucherov. Two minutes later, he momentarily lost sight of a puck that was redirected off a shot by Ryan McDonagh, but recovered in time to cover the puck after making his 16th save of the night.

An absolute beast: Asked to describe Alex Ovechkin’s play through two periods, NBC Sports analyst Keith Jones compared him to a six-time Stanley Cup champion.

“Mark Messier-like,” Jones said. “This guy is an absolute beast. You want a captain to go out and lead by example and he has done that throughout the period. It’s very difficult to come up with words to describe this. … He’s had plenty of opportunities, he has inflicted a ton of pain on Tampa in this game. If you’re on his team, you’re just so excited to get out there for your next shift and try to match his intensity, and if you’re playing against him, you’re hurting. You’re in that locker room with ice bags on and you’re trying to regroup and find a way to beat this Capitals team.”

Lightning struggling with line matching: It looks like Tampa Bay Lightning Coach Jon Cooper is having a tough time getting his new shutdown line of Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan on the ice against Washington’s Alex Ovechkin. They have only skated against Ovechkin for less than four minutes at even strength through two periods. Ovechkin’s line has taken advantage of the Lightning’s second line centered by Brayden Point, producing five scoring chances — two from high-danger areas — in just two minutes and 36 seconds of ice time.

Washington’s top pair, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen, doing their job: In nearly eight minutes of head-to-head ice time at even strength against the Ondrej Palat-Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov line the Capitals have a 5-0 edge in scoring chances with these skaters on the ice. Orlov and Niskanen also have a 4-0 scoring chance advantage over Tampa Bay’s second line of Yanni Gourde, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson.

End Period 2: Capitals 1, Lightning 0

Thanks to their power play goal from T.J. Oshie and a penalty kill on Tampa Bay’s only man advantage thus far, the Capitals are 20 minutes away from forcing a decisive Game 7 on Wednesday at Amalie Arena. Washington, which has outshot the Lightning 24-14, is 7-2 this postseason when leading after two periods.

The Capitals had a couple of golden opportunities to take a two-goal lead into intermission, but Jakub Vrana couldn’t handle an aerial pass from Nicklas Backstrom on a two-on-one in the final minute and Lightning center Brayden Point dove to poke away puck that was sitting perilously in the crease after another shot by Vrana later in the same shift. Washington would dodge a bullet when Nikita Kucherov ripped a shot off the crossbar just before the horn.

Caps strike first: With time winding down on Washington’s first power play of the night, T.J. Oshie ripped a one-timer off a pass from Nicklas Backstrom past Andrei Vasilevskiy’s glove for a 1-0 lead with 4:48 to play in the second period. The Capitals were 0 for 7 with the man advantage during Games 3 and 4 at Capital One Arena, but made their first chance on Monday count. Oshie’s first goal of the series came seconds after Alex Ovechkin one-timed a knuckling puck into Vasilevskiy’s gut and John Carlson rang a shot off the post. Washington is 8-4 when scoring first this postseason.

Ice tilting for the Caps: The Capitals have had the better chances and the bigger hits over the last few minutes, drawing cheers from the Capital One Arena crowd after Andrei Vasilevskiy held the puck on a glove save off a shot by Dmitry Orlov. Washington has more than twice as many scoring chances (11-5) than the Lightning with 7 minutes to play in the period, but the game remains scoreless.

Ovi is everywhere: Midway through the second period and the game still tied 0-0, NBC Sports Network highlighted Alex Ovechkin’s play without the puck. “He is a wrecking machine,” Pierre McGuire said of the Capitals’ captain. “You touch the puck anywhere near him, he’s going to make you pay. He’s ready to play in this huge Game 6.” In addition to his two shots on goal, Ovechkin has a team-high four of Washington’s 23 hits.

End-to-end action picking up: Capitals winger Andre Burakovsky, a healthy scratch in Game 5 after struggling in limited action since returning from injury, made a bid for his first goal of the playoffs, but Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall on the breakaway. Less than two minutes later, Anthony Cirelli ripped a shot wide of the net off a turnover by Burakovsky. With 12:42 to play in the second, shots are even at 10 apiece.

Caps get a kill: Forty seconds into the second period, a hooking penalty on Jay Beagle gave the Lightning its first chance with the man advantage. Tampa Bay entered Monday 6 for 15 on the power play in the series and had its streak of nine consecutive games with at least one power play goal ended on Saturday. The Capitals’ penalty-killing unit survived its first two minutes at 5-on-4 in Game 6, as Tampa Bay managed only one shot on goal.

Caps playing well, but need a goal: The Capitals have outshot the Lightning in every game this series, but Andrei Vasilevskiy entered Game 6 with 100 saves on Washington’s last 106 shots, and he looked sharp in the first period.

“You talk about that frustration,” NBC Sports Network analyst Jeremy Roenick said. “Washington has to continue to push, continue to put pucks on the net, but not get frustrated with what’s happening in front of them. The longer this game stays 0-0, the more it favors Tampa, because the energy in that building and the feeling in that building being an elimination game is going to change. The nerves are going to come in. Mistakes happen. When it comes down to being a one-shot game, that’s when the nerves come in.”

“I don’t think Ovechkin looks nervous, though, so I would be a little nervous if I was trying to defend against him, and he’s going to be angry after taking that hit from Girardi,” fellow analyst Keith Jones said.

Capitals get some good looks, but Bolts do too: The Caps had three strong shifts in the first, including a flurry of activity near the crease towards the end of the period, but they barely have the edge in even-strength shots (8 to 5) and scoring chances (10 to 8 ) with high-danger chances in Tampa Bay’s favor (5 to 3). Alex Ovechkin has four of Washington’s scoring chances, including a high-quality chance that should have gone in, and Jakub Vrana has the remaining scoring chance for the team.

J.T. Miller, who lost five minutes of ice time due to a fight with Brooks Orpik, leads the Lightning with two high-danger chances and Chris Kunitz, the fourth-line dynamo for Tampa Bay, has the other one.

With no power plays awarded to either team, even-strength play is all the more important.

End Period 1: Lightning 0, Capitals 0

Both teams worked hard for the important first goal of the game, and their efforts will resume after intermission. For the first time this series, neither team scored in the first 20 minutes. The story of the first period was Andrei Vasilevskiy and Braden Holtby, who made eight and six saves, respectively.

Washington’s best chance came in the final minute, when Vasilevskiy dropped his stick and made a sprawling glove save on Evgeny Kuznetsov, who couldn’t get enough of his stick on the the bouncing puck to put it in the net. Minutes earlier, Holtby stoned Brayden Point at the other end. There were no power plays in the period, though officials appeared to miss what should have been an interference call on Dan Girardi, who leveled Ovechkin away from the puck, and another potential interfence call on the Capitals’ captain earlier in the period.

A brief fight: Brooks Orpik and J.T. Miller dropped the gloves at center ice with 4:12 remaining in the first period, resulting in coincidental five-minute majors for fighting. The teams will continue to skate 5-on-5.

Defensive struggle: At another TV timeout with 5:21 to play in the period, shots were still 5-4 Washington, as the teams  combined to go more than four minutes without a shot on goal. There’s yet to be a penalty called after only one was whistled in Game 5.

Both goalies on their game: A minute after Andrei Vasilevskiy got just enough of his glove on a slapshot by Dmitry Orlov to deflect it wide of the net, Braden Holtby made his best save of the night on a shot through traffic by Ryan McDonagh. With 8:04 remaining in the first, shots are 5-4 Washington. “We’re on our toes,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz told Pierre McGuire during a stoppage in play. “We’ve got our backs against the wall. We’re not playing safe. We’re going for it.”

Pretty even: A rare turnover by Nicklas Backstrom around the net led to a couple of chances for Tampa Bay and an extended shift in the Washington zone. A couple of minutes later, Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin peppered Andrei Vasilevskiy with shots. With 10:44 remaining in a scoreless first, Washington had a 4-3 advantage in shots. It’s been a much better start for the Capitals than the one they had Saturday, when they were outshot 13-4 in the first 20 minutes.

Big hit and a slapper: The “Let’s Go Caps!” chants began before the singing of the national anthem and picked up soon after Sergeant Major Bob McDonald and Master Sergeant Caleb Green finished the last note. Unlike in Game 5, there was no goal in the first 19 seconds, or the first two minutes for that matter, on Monday. A Tom Wilson check of Cedric Paquette into the boards and a Michal Kempny slapshot that was gobbled up by Andrei Vasilevskiy provided some early excitement.

Bolts’ fourth has been a force … : Tampa Bay’s fourth line of Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan has made a huge impact in this series. Lightning Coach Jon Cooper wasn’t using this trio much against Washington’s top line featuring Alex Ovechkin the first four games (22.1 minutes total), but in Game 5 Cooper had that line skate 13.5 minutes at even strength against Ovechkin, outscoring the Capitals 2-0 with a 7-2 edge in scoring chances. Overall in the series, Kunitz, Paquette and Callahan have produced 21 scoring chances, nine from the high-danger areas such as the slot and the crease, while only allowing 12 and two, respectively.

… the Capitals’ new third line, on the other hand … : Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller and Brett Connolly haven’t spent much time together this postseason, but they skated close to 211 minutes at even strength during the regular season and the results, unfortunately, weren’t great. The trio was outscored 4 to 11 while also being on the wrong side of high-danger scoring chances, 50 to 26. Plus, eight of those 11 goals against were from the slot or the crease.

Can Caps recapture their winning ways?: The winning formula for Washington during the first two games was simple: create quality chances. In Games 1 and 2, the Capitals attempted 17 shots in the slot and the crease during even strength, with two of those ending up in the net; they only allowed nine high-danger chances to Tampa Bay in those contests. In the last three games, that script has flipped, with Washington allowing 33 high-danger chances yet only creating 21 for itself. And, not surpringly, the Lightning had the edge in high-danger goals scored, 5 to 0, over the past three games, all victories for Tampa Bay.

Jakub Vrana leads the team in high-danger chances created with six, followed by Ovechkin, Connolly and Eller in a three-way tie with five. Recently demoted Chandler Stephenson has three, but it is uncertain how many he will be create from the fourth line, putting pressure on the rest of the forwards to create the dirty goals that got Washington a 2-0 series lead at the start of this matchup.

Pregame reading
Immerse yourself in the Capitals’ postseason with The Post’s coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs:

Signed for moments just like these, T.J. Oshie cashes in to keep Capitals alive

Braden Holtby picks the perfect time to play his best game for the Capitals

Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy was brilliant once more, but was beaten because his teammates were not

The Capitals need a hero, and it needs to be Braden Holtby

The Lightning knows what’s at stake in Game 6: A chance to rest

Capitals’ Matt Niskanen is quick to take blame but deserves more of the credit

The Capitals got themselves into this mess, but they’re staying the course

After Game 5 loss, Alex Ovechkin moves on to biggest game of his illustrious career

Svrluga: The Capitals have spent all their house money. Do they have anything in reserve?

Capitals’ ghosts of collapses past have suddenly sprung to life

The Capitals’ overachieving year threatens, again, to end in doom and gloom

Nicklas Backstrom returns, and the Capitals are again a team in full

For whatever reason, the Capitals are not at home in their own building

Unburdened by previous playoff baggage, Capitals’ young players help carry the load

After being blamed for Game 3 loss, Caps fans destroy broom signed by Nicklas Backstrom

I’ll have what Alex Ovechkin is having: Fans can’t get enough of Mamma Lucia’s chicken Parmesan

Steven Stamkos is healthy, confident and ready to lead the Lightning’s comeback

In what could be his last run with Capitals, relentless Jay Beagle refuses to yield

Caps fan’s viral selfie with Evgeny Kuznetsov was even more charming than it seemed

The Caps and Nats are rolling, and Barry Trotz and Dave Martinez can’t stop texting each other

These Stanley Cup playoffs have given the Capitals all they can handle. And they’ve handled it just fine.

Lars Eller steps out of injured Nicklas Backstrom’s shadow and into the spotlight

Lightning defenseman tried to copy Alex Ovechkin’s moves. Now he’s trying to stop them.

‘We are all about the Rangers South’: Capitals face familiar playoff foes in Tampa

Barry Trotz lacks a contract extension, but has perspective as Capitals pursue Stanley Cup

Washington’s expected lineup

Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana-Nicklas Backsrom-T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky-Lars Eller-Brett Connolly
Chandler Stephenson-Jay Beagle-Devante Smith-Pelly

Michal Kempny-John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik-Christian Djoos

Braden Holtby (starter)
Philipp Grubauer

Tampa Bay’s expected lineup

Ondrej Palat-Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov
Yanni Gourde-Brayden Point-Tyler Johnson
Alex Killorn-Anthony Cirelli-J.T. Miller
Chris Kunitz-Cedric Paquette-Ryan Callahan

Victor Hedman-Dan Girardi
Ryan McDonagh-Anton Stralman
Braydon Coburn-Mikahil Sergachev

Andrei Vasilevskiy (starter)
Louis Domingue