“The first shift in the second, I just get burned wide and they get another one,” Niskanen said of the Lightning’s third goal.
“The first three goals were all my fault,” Niskanen said minutes after Washington’s 3-2 Game 5 loss, which has the team on the brink of elimination. “I had a tough first 20 minutes and 30 seconds, so I’ve got be better next game.”
Among local media, Niskanen has a reputation for being a willing team spokesman after Washington losses. In the Capitals’ locker room, he’s considered “old school,” as forward T.J. Oshie put it. He is off the ice as he is on it — steady, not flashy. He’ll take the blame, as he did Saturday, and take some heat off his teammates as a result. A top-pairing, all-situations blue-liner who averages more than 25 minutes per game and draws the toughest assignments, Niskanen arguably doesn’t get enough credit for how much he’s contributed to helping Washington to their first Eastern Conference finals in 20 years.
“He’s one of those quiet pros, very low maintenance, a lot of trust in his game from his teammates and coaches,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said earlier this month. “He’s one of those guys that if he has an off game, he knows all the things he did wrong. And if he has a good game, he tells you, ‘I can be better.’ He’s a top player that gets very little recognition around the league, but to us, he’s a top player.”
Allow goaltender Braden Holtby to explain how not all of the Lightning’s goals Saturday were Niskanen’s fault.
“I think that’s just Matt being a real professional and a real leader for our team,” Holtby said. “I think that the first goal is definitely not all on him. There’s a lost battle before that, and a guy makes a great play diving and putting it into the middle. It just happens.
“The next one he’s put into a tough situation, because [Dmitry Orlov] got tripped. He’s caught there seeing if it’s a two-on-one, if he can gap up. That’s not an easy play and he takes away everything and [the puck] somehow finds its way through him. It’s not on him, that’s just the way hockey goes sometimes. He’s been an absolute rock and he’s going to be, just like the rest of us, okay in Game 6.”
Washington’s top pair of Niskanen and Orlov has been on the ice more than 325 even-strength minutes this postseason, and the Capitals have taken 51 percent of the shot attempts when those two are on the ice together. Often matched against the opponent’s top forwards, Niskanen and Orlov have essentially broken even: 16 goals against and 16 goals for. On Saturday night, Niskanen took all the responsibility despite Orlov having been on the ice with him for all three Lightning goals.
The Capitals’ first goal of the game was a Niskanen point shot that center Evgeny Kuznetsov tipped past goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Niskanen has acknowledged this season was rough for him at times. He missed 13 games with a left hand injury, and the rest of the season wasn’t as consistent as past ones. “I had stretches where I thought I was really good and a couple stretches where I stunk,” Niskanen said last month. But he so effectively frustrated Columbus sniper Artemi Panarin in the first round that Blue Jackets Coach John Tortorella tried to get Panarin away from that matchup several times. In this series, Tampa Bay’s top line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov has just two even-strength goals.
The Capitals will trust him in that top-pairing role again in Monday night’s Game 6, a contest the team needs to win if it wants to extend the season. His teammates appreciate how he blamed himself Saturday night, but they don’t necessarily agree and are not remotely concerned about his play.
“I mean, it’s not easy to do,” forward Tom Wilson said. “Nisky is one of the best teammates. He doesn’t say much obviously. He works so hard. He’s a huge factor for us. It’s not easy at this time of year to come out and say that. I think he’s probably being a little bit dramatic. There’s five guys on the ice. I didn’t see it that way. I don’t think many guys did.
“If he feels that way, I’m sure he’ll be stepping up for the next one. That’s what leadership is. He’s definitely a big-time leader. We’ve all got to have each other’s back, go into this one as a team, make sure we get it done.”