Solid Game 3 ef­fort gives Tampa chance to even se­ries Thurs­day in Wash­ing­ton

Ottawa Citizen - - SPORTS - MICHAEL TRAIKOS twit­

It was about an hour be­fore the start of Game 3 when Nikita Kucherov grabbed a ball and glove and be­gan to play catch in the mid­dle of a hall­way with a mem­ber of the Tampa Bay Light­ning ’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions staff.

It seemed like an odd way to warm up be­fore the most im­por­tant hockey game of the sea­son. Then again, it drove home the point of not drop­ping the ball.

To sug­gest that the Light­ning play­ers needed this one was an un­der­state­ment.

After los­ing the first two games of the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nal at home, ev­ery­one knew how high the stakes were for Game 3. It wasn’t tech­ni­cally a must-win, but another loss and you could have pretty much kissed the se­ries good­bye.

“We know it’s a crit­i­cal game,” said Light­ning cap­tain Steven Stamkos. “There’s no se­cret. We’ve dug our­selves a hole here, but by no means is it some­thing that we can’t over­come.”

For that to hap­pen, Tampa Bay ’s best play­ers — for­wards Stamkos and Kucherov, de­fence­man Vic­tor Hed­man and goal­tender An­drei Vasilevskiy — needed to an­swer the bell. In games 1 and 2, Wash­ing­ton had re­ceived all-star ef­forts from Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby.

In Game 3, the Light­ning got a sim­i­lar star treat­ment in a 4-2 win that turned this back into a se­ries again.

Stamkos and Kucherov each had a goal and an as­sist, Hed­man had a goal and two as­sists, while Vasilevskiy, who stopped 36 of 38 shots, re­minded ev­ery­one why he was named a Vez­ina Tro­phy fi­nal­ist this sea­son. It was as com­plete a per­for­mance as you could ask for. And the Light­ning, who are still down 2-1 in the best-of-seven se­ries, will try to do it again in Game 4 in Wash­ing­ton on Thurs­day.

After charg­ing out to a 1-0 lead in the first pe­riod — the first time in the se­ries that Tampa Bay scored first — the Light­ning led by scores of 3-0 and 4-1 in the sec­ond and never looked back. This was more like the Tampa Bay team that had rolled over New Jersey and Bos­ton in the pre­vi­ous two rounds rather than the team that had been outscored 10-4 in games 1 and 2 and Wash­ing­ton.

Much of that was be­cause of the Cap­i­tals, who gifted the Light­ning with five power plays in an undis­ci­plined game de­cided by spe­cial teams.

A Holtby trip­ping penalty on Yanni Gourde led to a Tampa Bay power play at 12:57 in the first pe­riod. And the Light­ning, who have been so deadly with the man ad­van­tage in th­ese play­offs, made the Cap­i­tals pay for it. Set­ting up in his of­fice at the left face­off cir­cle, Stamkos per­fectly one-timed a cross-ice pass that Holtby had zero chance on.

It was Stamkos’ sixth goal of the play­offs and his third power-play goal of the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nal.

It was also one of the few times in this se­ries that the Light­ning weren’t chas­ing the game, some­thing that the Cap­i­tals had ex­ploited in games 1 and 2. Now that Tampa Bay was in charge, you could feel the knot in the play­ers’ stom­achs start to loosen.

In the lead and in charge, the Light­ning took con­trol of the game with two goals in the first four min­utes of the sec­ond pe­riod.

With Lars Eller in the penalty box for clos­ing his hand on the puck in the crease, Tampa Bay’s power play once again went to work. This time it was Kucherov with the one-timer, putting the Light­ning ahead 2-0. Less than two min­utes later, Kucherov found Hed­man sneak­ing down into the slot to ex­tend the lead.

A late goal in the sec­ond pe­riod from Brett Con­nolly and another from Kuznetsov in the third made it in­ter­est­ing. But Wash­ing­ton’s power play could not con­nect on its op­por­tu­ni­ties the way that Tampa Bay had. Part of it was Vasilevskiy, who made the big saves when he needed to, but the big­ger dif­fer­ence was that the Light­ning were not con­stantly putting their goalie in a po­si­tion to bail them out of trou­ble.

As Light­ning head coach Jon Cooper had said of games 1 and 2: “It’s 2-on-1 after 2-on-1. And it’s not Jon Cooper go­ing in with a 2-on-1 — it’s Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, so there’s a big dif­fer­ence there. We have to limit those.”

They did. And if they can do it again, this se­ries could be head­ing back to Tampa all tied up.

We know it’s a crit­i­cal game. There’s no se­cret. We’ve dug our­selves a hole here, but by no means is it some­thing that we can’t over­come.


Light­ning for­ward Nikita Kucherov, right, cel­e­brates a goal with team­mates Bray­den Point, left, and Vic­tor Hed­man on Tues­day as Tampa Bay won 4-2 in Game 3 of the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nal in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to cut the Cap­i­tals’ se­ries lead to 2-1.

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