“That’s a recent Stanley Cup champion,” Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper said after the game. “I’m shocked that people aren’t talking about that team more because they’re outstanding. They’ve got everything: size, strength, speed, skill.”
After the Capitals fell into a 2-0 hole early in the second period on goals by Nikita Kucherov and Mitchell Stephens, their offense sparked late in the period with two goals during a span of 2:08 — the first coming from Richard Panik, the second from Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Capitals couldn’t maintain the momentum, and the only other time a Capital lit the goal lamp was on T.J. Oshie’s shootout goal. Brayden Point and Kucherov scored in the tiebreaker for Tampa Bay.
“We weren’t expecting perfection this game, but I think the important part is the first part of periods: They got some action, and we didn’t panic,” Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said. “We righted the ship. So I think that’s important. They’re a team, too — they come in waves. They always have and just weather the storm there and wait for your opportunity to get in and be physical and grind them down and [score] the two goals.”
Monday’s game against Tampa Bay was the first of Washington’s three round-robin games in the Eastern Conference, the results of which will determine seeding in the next round, which is set to begin Aug. 11. Washington will play the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday in its second round-robin game, then the Boston Bruins on Sunday.
Defenseman John Carlson did not play in Monday’s game after he suffered an undisclosed injury in Wednesday’s 3-2 exhibition victory against the Carolina Hurricanes. Carlson fell awkwardly against the boards and did not play the last half of the game’s third period. After not practicing with the team Thursday, he rejoined the group for the team’s two practice sessions over the weekend.
Carlson’s absence was precautionary. Coach Todd Reirden made it clear leading up to Monday’s game that the team would not put Carlson in a situation where he would aggravate his injury and cause a chance for him to miss any part of the first round. Reirden reiterated Monday after the game that the team will continue to evaluate Carlson before Thursday’s round-robin game.
The Capitals are not the only team in the East’s round-robin group dealing with injury issues. Tampa Bay was without Steven Stamkos, who had missed the previous two days of practice. Stamkos is working his way back from a lower body injury. The Flyers’ Michael Raffl will be out for a while, said Coach Alain Vigneault, after suffering an injury in Sunday’s win over Boston.
With Carlson watching from the stands, Radko Gudas filled in and teamed with Michal Kempny on the second defensive pairing. Gudas was a healthy scratch in four of the team’s last five regular season games before the pause.
And while Gudas had a solid opening period, blocking a potential second goal opportunity for the Lightning on a three-on-one chance, the Capitals were not generating much offense, a big reason they dug themselves an early hole.
“Obviously, we have to play better,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We know we can play better. Yeah, we play physical, but I don’t think we have too many chances in the offensive zone. It was a good game for us. It’s, you know, kind of a wake-up call. That’s why we play those three games. Every game is going to be much harder and harder. I’m not worried about our line or our team at all.”
The Lightning opened the scoring with Kucherov’s snipe past the glove of Holtby with 7:07 left in the first period. The Capitals’ Lars Eller had a bad turnover in the neutral zone, and it opened the door for Kucherov in Washington’s end. The Capitals had chances to answer with a four-on-three opportunity with five minutes remaining in the opening frame, but the team’s power-play struggles continued.
Tampa Bay continued to put pressure on Washington, with Stephens striking 7:48 into the second period off a deflection in front.
Washington finally came to life after Oshie and Yanni Gourde dropped the gloves with 5:22 left in the middle period. The game’s intensity ticked up, and the Capitals had the last eight shots of the middle frame.
Panik scored the Capitals’ first goal of the postseason, tapping in a puck that squirted through Andrei Vasilevskiy’s pads with 2:36 left in the second period. Panik picked up where he left off in the regular season, scoring his third goal in six games.
“He’s playing the best he’s played this year, all throughout camp and right now, the last game as well,” Reirden said. “Great to see him get rewarded today, and when he is going to do that, I’ll put him back out there.”
Barely two minutes later, Kuznetsov scored on the power play, banging in the rebound to tie the score at 2. It was Kuznetsov’s 25th postseason goal, tying him with Dale Hunter for fourth on the Capitals’ all-time list.
“He’s been skating really well,” Reirden said. “He seems to have picked up a half a step at least. … I think, as we’ve seen a couple years ago, certainly his best hockey was during the playoffs, and anxious to see him continue to play this way and ramp up as we get closer to round one.”
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