It’s a series now, and deep down the reasonable people who filed into Capital One Arena knew it was always going to be. It’s not because the Washington Capitals are those Washington Capitals and they’re destined to take manageable situations and create chaos. It’s not, as we have been taught all these years, that it’s in their DNA. It’s because the Tampa Bay Lightning was the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season. Obediently laying down and rolling over wouldn’t be its response.
This is not dire. (Let’s not even say, “Not yet,” because that suggests impending doom.) The Capitals spent the past month establishing reasons this group is somehow different from its predecessors. Sixty lousy minutes — a 4-2 loss to the Lightning in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday night — don’t change that.
(Man, it’s tempting to write “yet.” But I’m not going to do it. I’m not. (Yet.))
“Nobody say it’s going to be easy,” said captain Alex Ovechkin. “They’re not going to give us two wins in a row in our house.”
What they need, now, is one win in their house — a house in which they have now lost four of seven postseason games — before heading to Tampa for Saturday’s Game 5. What we know is another performance like Tuesday’s will be unacceptable. If that happens, jitters would be warranted.
So a bit of instruction for the Capitals to make sure that extra cigarette can stay in the pack: Stay out of the gosh-darn penalty box.
“They’re going to make it count,” forward Tom Wilson said, “if they get too many chances.”
They made it count Tuesday. Through three games, it’s really the only area of the series in which Tampa Bay has a distinct advantage. Steven Stamkos is here to remind the Caps of that. Nikita Kucherov is here to remind the Caps of that. Slow down the replay of their shots, and you might catch a glimpse of either one. But that’s the only way, because they were blazing.
This is blatantly obvious, but let’s say it anyway: The Lightning power play is deadly. I’d argue it won Tampa Tuesday’s game, because Stamkos scored on its first opportunity and Kucherov on the next, and a Capitals team that absolutely dominated two games in Tampa suddenly felt as if it was being dominated at home.
It felt that way because of 5 vs. 4, not 5 vs. 5.
“Both guys shoot the puck really well,” Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “It’s kind of like we have Ovi on that one side and they kind of have it on both sides. So take one guy away, and it leaves the other guy open. Against a lot of guys, you force them to shoot from out there and you’re pretty happy with yourself.”
Not against Stamkos. Not against Kucherov. Not against the Lightning.
The penalties that led to the goals were avoidable: Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, of all people, tripped Lightning forward Yanni Gourde in front of the net. And then early in the second period, Capitals center Lars Eller corralled a high rebound in front of Holtby with his glove — and closed his hand on the puck.
That’s a no-no, and an unnecessary one. The Capitals ended up taking six minors Tuesday. Welcome to the night of living dangerously.
“We just didn’t do a good enough job killing them,” defenseman John Carlson said.
Points for taking ownership of it, for sure. At one juncture earlier this postseason, Washington killed off 24 straight penalties. That, though, was against the Columbus Blue Jackets’ feeble power play and a Pittsburgh Penguins team that opened the series without Evgeni Malkin — diminishing what is normally a lethal unit.
It wasn’t against Stamkos, who scored 15 goals on the power play (tied for third in the NHL) in the regular season, and it wasn’t against Kucherov, who had 36 power-play points (tied for sixth in the league). Defenseman Victor Hedman, who assisted on both Tampa Bay power-play goals Tuesday, is a master distributor. There’s a reason this was the third-best unit during the regular season and a reason it picked apart Washington’s penalty kill Tuesday.
This all warrants examination. There’s time for that.
“We’re talking about it, for sure,” Wilson said. “I think we’ve got to get back to our basics. Maybe we’re thinking a little bit too much.”
That’s the only hint of searching you’ll get out of the Capitals’ dressing room at the moment. Because the playoffs are more than a month old, Washington now has a new box of experiences from which to draw. Instead of thinking about the folds of the past, the first Capitals group to reach the conference finals in 20 years can tap into its response when it lost the first two games of the postseason, how it has handled playing without injured center Nicklas Backstrom for four games, how it responded when Wilson was suspended, how it beat back a Tampa surge in Game 2.
“We know,” Ovechkin said, “exactly what we have to do.”
Clean up the penalties on Thursday, and there’s reason for optimism that the Caps will head to Tampa with a three-games-to-one lead. They have been the better hockey team in the neutral zone, on defense, in so many aspects of the game. They have eight five-on-five goals over three games. Tampa Bay has three.
Give the Lightning the man advantage, and hold on for dear life. Stay at even strength, and feel pretty darned good about yourselves.
“We just got to try to find a way to win the next one at home,” Orpik said.
But there’s one other element that can’t be repeated Thursday if panic is to be staved off: Holtby has to be a hero, again.
This might be unfair, because how was he supposed to stop any of the Tampa goals Tuesday night? They were either sniped, or he was screened.
“There’s always something you can do a little bit better,” Holtby said.
Again: the right attitude. For all the analysis of the Capitals’ more responsible play in this postseason and all we have wondered about what might be different in the dressing room, the difference in the first 14 games of their postseason was, in fact, Holtby, their springtime MVP.
For the Capitals to get to where they want to go, they need heroes. It says here Holtby needs to be one of them.
That’s the thing about this series, though. There’s still plenty of time for all of that to happen. Game 3 was a setback, discouraging to the red-clad fans who wanted so badly to welcome their lads back home, to cheer them to victory. But it wasn’t more than a bump.
So don’t start pacing. This is now a series, sure. But it’s not a disaster or a meltdown or any of the various phrases we used to have to write about this franchise, regardless of the year. It’s not any of that stuff.
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