When Smith-Pelly’s goal had squirted underneath Vasilevskiy, the young Russian goaltender rose to his feet, put his head down and skated back and forth between the circles. He had fought through fatigue and shouldered more responsibility in his first full season as Tampa’s undisputed starter this year, and his body language had suggested he was doing the same here. But while Vasilevskiy was far from spotless Monday, his brilliance alone had kept the nonchalant Lightning within striking distance late. What was clear from that sequence in the third period was that Tampa Bay, which has struggled to put together complete performances all series and failed again in Washington’s eventual 3-0 win, cannot solely rely on its wunderkind goaltender to carry it to the Stanley Cup final.
“He’s played well the whole series, the whole season,” Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan said of Vasilevskiy, who finished with 31 saves and could only watch from the bench as the Capitals scored an empty net goal in the final seconds. “He definitely gave us a great chance here. Especially, it’s only 1-0 after the amount of chances they had. Obviously you wish you could help him out more. At the end of the day you can’t find one [goal], and they keep coming.”
The Capitals came in waves at Vasilevskiy, who after giving up 10 goals in the first two games of the series responded with the kind of vigor that has made him a franchise cornerstone. He turned in the best playoff performance of his young career to steal Game 4, and he had flustered the Capitals for most of Game 5 as the Lightning took a 3-2 series lead. He improvised a number of saves in the first period of Game 6, keeping his team afloat while they were outworked in most other facets.
Through the first two periods alone, when Washington seized a 1-0 lead on a power play goal by T.J. Oshie that beat Vasilevskiy to his glove side, the Capitals had recorded 15 blocked shots and 29 hits, 16 more than the Lightning. It held a 23-14 edge on shots. By the final minute of the second period, Vasilevskiy made three crucial saves and had to essentially stand on his head to stave off another goal, including on a Jakub Vrana shot that trickled through his pads and sat in the crease for a few seconds before Tampa Bay’s Braydon Point knocked it out of danger.
“We were no good,” Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper said. “We didn’t play with the near desperation they did. Was it a fairly even game? There’s no question. But what were the hits? 39-19? Somebody was engaged and somebody wasn’t. That’s a choice.”
The choice led to Tampa Bay being outhustled by Stephenson and company and a game-changing goal in the middle of the third period, but that was far from the only sequence in which the Lightning did not look like itself in its first-ever road playoff loss at Washington. Tampa has won 36 postseason games since 2015, second to only Pittsburgh, largely because it has been able to match the desperation of its opponents in situations like this.
They went the other direction Monday night, with captain Steven Stamkos questioning the little things, like why his team couldn’t muscle its way to the front of the net and get more traffic in the sight-lines of Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, who completed his first shutout of the season.
“Vasy was outstanding again. Both goalies played well,” Stamkos said. “But [Holtby] saw a little too many of the chances, I think. We’ve seen it all series.”
The sequence that provided one last microcosm of this lost opportunity came shortly after Smith-Pelly’s goal, when Tampa Bay went on the power play after a Nicklas Backstrom penalty. The vaunted unit had been hailed as unstoppable all series, but it was a hot mess on Monday night. At one point, Stamkos and center T.J. Miller collided with each other near center ice, which led to Miller being dazed and the Capitals picking off the puck for another a breakaway. Vasilevskiy was alone again. He improvised yet another save on the rush, but Tampa didn’t need another save. It needed another goal. And now, to reach the Stanley Cup finals, it will need a win in Game 7 Wednesday night.