WIN PUTS CHARGE IN LIGHTNING
Solid Game 3 effort gives Tampa chance to even series Thursday in Washington
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.