The playoffs came early at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night, two NHL heavyweights trying to prove something to each other and to themselves. The Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning both have Stanley Cup ambitions, and getting there could mean again battling each other come May. The first punches were thrown in this game 74 of the regular season, a potential preview of what’s to come.
And with this night having all the ingredients of a postseason tilt, it naturally featured some heroics from center Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals’ leading scorer in last year’s Stanley Cup run. His short-side goal with 53 seconds left in regulation tied the game to force overtime, and the stage was great enough for Kuznetsov to flash his signature bird celebration, kicking up a leg and flapping his wings.
But Victor Hedman’s goal 3:01 into the extra period ensured the Lightning left the ice celebrating a 5-4 win on a night Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy set a franchise record with 54 saves. The Capitals’ 58 shots were a franchise record.
Washington goaltender Braden Holtby allowed five goals on 28 shots, and that the Capitals earned a standings point at all extended their cushion for first place in the Metropolitan Division. Considering Washington was playing its second game in as many nights, it was pleased with the fight it put up against the team with the best regular season record in the league.
“It’s good to see what we have,” Holtby said. “Obviously, we competed right to the end to get a point, and we know there’s some areas we can make it a little more difficult on them, kind of take a few pointers from their game. They’re a good team, we’re a good team, and it’s been two very close games.
“That’s what you want going into the playoffs. That’s how you can learn the most and grow your team the most. It’s a loss, but it’s one that we can really hone in on and analyze and see those little, tiny things that are going to put us over the edge.”
Of immediate concern for the team is the health of defenseman Michal Kempny, who suffered an apparent left leg injury late in the second period. Coach Todd Reirden said Kempny will “miss some time,” though the team may have more of an update in the coming days.
With all three regular season meetings coming in two weeks, the Capitals and the Lightning essentially have a late-season mini-series, a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference finals. The second period alone packed enough drama to give this game a playoff feel with a nationally televised audience. Washington had the lead coming out of first intermission, but Tampa Bay scored two power-play goals, from Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, respectively, to take a 2-1 lead just 2:12 into the second period. Anthony Cirelli then added a third unanswered goal with a centering pass that caromed off John Carlson’s skate and into an empty net to give the Lightning a 3-1 lead, all of its goals coming in the first 6:45 of the second period.
Washington responded less than four minutes later courtesy of a third line that’s been the team’s hottest of late. Winger Carl Hagelin, acquired before the trade deadline last month, set up the Capitals’ first goal of the game when he stripped Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn of the puck before springing center Lars Eller for a partial breakaway. He scored the team’s second goal himself, wristing in Brett Connolly’s feed at the side of the net. It was Hagelin’s third goal since joining the Capitals after he had just two goals and six assists in 38 games with Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. He now has eight points in 13 games with the Capitals.
Washington’s power play got the equalizer with forward T.J. Oshie punching in his own rebound 13:40 into the frame, but the Capitals arguably lost the game with special teams. A penalty kill that held the Lightning’s top-ranked man-advantage unit off the board in their game against each other less than a week ago allowed three Tampa Bay goals off three power plays. Kucherov scored his second of the game after a precise passing sequence.
“I didn’t think we were terrible on the PK, but they’re dangerous if you give them one good look,” Hagelin said. “And obviously tonight was one of those nights when they put it in.”
It was the final five minutes of the frame that spoke to the dislike between the two teams, which has been amplified with this season’s meetings, the first two won by Tampa Bay, coming in such a short span. Kempny took objection to Lightning center Cedric Paquette’s cross-check, and as the two wrestled in front of Washington’s bench, Kempny’s left leg was awkwardly caught under him. He had to be helped to the locker room. And all the while, Oshie and Tampa Bay defenseman Mikhail Sergachev also jostled, as did forwards Jakub Vrana and Yanni Gourde, with the former receiving the first fighting major of his NHL career.
“There’s certain opportunities you get that are galvanizing moments for your team, and when you have Jakub Vrana getting into a fight, that says a lot,” Reirden said. “When you’re trying to get through a back-to-back against a fresh team and you’re down in the game, that was something that to me is always something that needs to be pointed out and addressed and courage and team togetherness from a guy that doesn’t do it ever.”
A long-term injury to Kempny with the postseason so close would be devastating to the Capitals. He’s played in a top-four role alongside Carlson all season, skating more than 19 minutes per game, and it was his addition to the blue line before last year’s trade deadline that helped turn Washington into an eventual Stanley Cup champion.
The last time these two teams faced each other at Capital One Arena was Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, arguably the Capitals’ most impressive game of their Stanley Cup run. Washington made a point of being physical that night, and the team was aggressive in checking Tampa Bay again Wednesday night, laying 34 hits for the game. But the Lightning seemed to similarly want to make a statement that it wouldn’t be pushed around so easily this time.
If these two teams should see each other again in the playoffs, expect a lot more games like Wednesday’s, which had enough twists and turns to span a whole series.
“It’s two really good hockey teams with some very good players and some great goalies and some good special teams, so it’s going to be a good game,” Stamkos said. “They’re the defending champs, so we have to raise our level to eventually follow in their footsteps in that regard. . . .
“I’m sure both of us would be very happy to see each other again if it’s the Eastern Conference final. There’s a long way to get to that point.”