TAMPA — This game between two of the top teams in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, a rematch nearly 10 months in the making, didn’t feel so unlike the last time they met on the ice. It was physical and it was entertaining, as evenly matched as expected.
“It felt like a playoff game,” Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said.
Fortunately for the Capitals, it wasn’t, but the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 6-3 win was exactly the kind of battle both teams wanted with the Stanley Cup playoffs less than a month away. With the clubs facing each other for the first time since the Capitals prevailed in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in May, two late empty-net goals made the score appear more lopsided than the game actually was.
The Capitals left Amalie Arena feeling fine about their performance — other than some puck-management issues and a poor start — after facing a team that has all but locked up the Presidents’ Trophy for garnering the most standings points in the regular season.
Washington has two more meetings over the next two weeks to continue measuring itself against the Lightning, an opponent the Capitals expect they will have to get through again if they hope to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
“We played pretty well,” defenseman John Carlson said. “But when you’re playing this good of a team, you need more than pretty well.”
In a game featuring some of the most star-studded offensive talent in the league, the goal that decided the outcome came from a rookie defenseman who has been out of the lineup for half the season and who entered with just three goals in his career.
Erik Cernak’s shot from the right faceoff circle slipped through goaltender Braden Holtby’s legs to give the Lightning a two-goal lead 2:45 into the third period, stunting the Capitals’ comeback effort after they had controlled the second period.
Captain Alex Ovechkin scored his league-leading 48th goal — and his second of the game — with 7:04 to play, cutting the Lightning’s lead to one for a third time. Washington seemed to be building momentum when it got a power play less than two minutes later when Ondrej Palat was sent to the penalty box for tripping. But the Capitals couldn’t muster a shot during the man-advantage, and when the team pulled Holtby for an extra attacker late, Alex Killorn scored into an empty net for his third goal of the game, prompting home fans to litter the ice with hats. Yanni Gourde added a second empty-net tally with about a second left, perhaps a statement for two teams that have built some bad blood.
“You can tell it got a little nasty there at times — a lot of scrums, which I think is awesome,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “It’s fun to play in these games. They had a lot of emotion, we had a lot of emotion, so it was a good one. It was a fun one with a little bit of playoff atmosphere.”
The Lightning was the only team the Capitals had yet to play this season, creating more of a buildup for both sides. Washington had success against Tampa Bay through physicality in the teams’ playoff series last spring, and the Capitals tried to replicate that from the start of Saturday’s game by throwing several big hits. Forward Tom Wilson caught Mikhail Sergachev with one along the boards, knocking the Lightning defenseman out of the game for a few shifts. But the Lightning pushed back just as hard, ultimately tallying 10 more hits than the Capitals.
“They had guys over there who you don’t typically see throwing the body around, and they were throwing the body around,” Oshie said.
“We can be even more physical, because that’s the way we like to play,” Backstrom said.
Despite the physical play, Tampa Bay was able to establish its speed and transition game. A Washington turnover in the neutral zone led to a two-on-one with Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson, and the latter buried his chance to give the Lightning a lead 8:35 into the game. Less than two minutes later, Tampa Bay got a little bit of luck when Holtby played the puck behind the net and sent it along the wall. Killorn picked it off at the half-wall, and his centering pass glanced off Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov and into the net to make it a two-goal game. Although the Capitals were able to trim the Lightning’s lead several times, they felt they never recovered from that early deficit.
“We were kind of chasing it,” said Carlson, who had Washington’s first goal. “Even though we were playing well, we were still forced into doing maybe a few things we normally don’t do.”
On the bright side, the Capitals were able to contain the Lightning power play — including 1:28 of a five-on-three — which entered the game first in the league. Washington went on a man-advantage of its own 5:59 into the second period, and during the power play Ovechkin collected a rebound in his sweet spot in the left faceoff circle after Carlson’s shot bounced off Oshie. With his goal 7:33 into the period, Ovechkin tied Hall of Fame center Phil Esposito with 246 power-play goals for his career, fifth all time.
The Lightning entered with 112 points, 17 more than the NHL’s second-best team. While Tampa Bay doesn’t have much left to play for in the regular season, a chance to get a little revenge was probably more than enough motivation. Now Washington has its own for next time; the teams meet Wednesday at Capital One Arena.
“We have a goal in mind, and that’s to win a Stanley Cup,” Holtby said. “Obviously statistically they’re the best team in hockey right now, but we know that that doesn’t make a difference.
“We’re focused on us to improve our team to give ourselves the best chance to win.”