How the Capitals Beat the Lightning

What went right for Washington and wrong for the Lightning

The problem with being good hockey fans is that Tampa Bay knew from an early point that the Washington Capitals had their beloved Lightning’s number in game seven. It’s hard to try and turn the energy back on at that point. The game seemed simply lost by the end of the second period, with the Lightning off their game and the Capitals very much ready to finally take the next step. The Caps knew buildings like these, they’ve been in them for over a decade. This time it was their turn, finally, to lift a trophy in front of a stunned game 7 crowd.

There’s not much sense recapping the game bit by bit. Sports Talk Florida is not that kind of cruel. It’s better instead to try and answer the question on so many Lightning fans’ faces: How?

Make no mistake, Tampa Bay: The Lightning are not the primary reason that the Lightning are no longer playing hockey this season. Washington won this game far more than Tampa Bay lost it, and in all assessments of this series that should not be lost. There are absolutely things that the Lightning could have and perhaps should have done better, but the headline here is that the Washington Capitals have reached that next level they have been trying to reach for a decade.

Washington won this series by adapting to changing conditions, and that was on full display in game seven.

The final three games of this series were officiated in a way that, if we’re all being honest, hockey fans wish for every game. To borrow a cliché, they let ‘em play. It’s not that there were missed calls, it’s that the referees were not interested in interrupting hockey games with borderline penalty calls. The Capitals realized this, and adjusted accordingly, ramping up physical play as a result. After game five, the Washington hockey press was talking about a missed call on what they swore to be a trip by Steven Stamkos. Throughout game seven, the Amalie Arena crowd found themselves asking the Striped Ones for calls that would never come. The Lightning went on the power play just once, as did the Capitals. A slash was called on Nikita Kucherov in the final minute, but by then the game had been decided.

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn, left, and Washington Capitals right wing Tom Wilson (43) fight during the first period of Game 7 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals hockey playoff series Wednesday, May 23, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The physical play decided game six, with the Lightning just not matching the intensity from the Capitals in Washington. In game seven, the Lightning had a clear edge in hits, but the Capitals used any edge they could to get things going on defense. Washington blocked fifteen shots in the game, and did their best to make things easier on Braden Holtby.

Holtby is worth dwelling on. Lightning fans might be upset at their team for not scoring in the final 159 minutes of the series, but Holtby’s performance in that stretch of hockey cannot be understated. There were Tampa Bay rushes, opportunities, and offensive chances. For the most part, it was Holtby who put a stop to those things.

In the second period Wednesday night, Alex Killorn received a long pass at the blue line and was in on a breakaway. He got a good shot off, but Holtby was all over it. That moment was the last the Lightning looked like they were close to getting back in the game. It seemed to deflate the entire team, and they played differently after that. More than Alex Ovechkin, more than two goals from Andre Burakovsky, it was Holtby who broke the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Barry Trotz deserves a lot of credit for the job he did coaching the Capitals in this seven game set. Washington had a game plan on what to do to stop Tampa Bay five-on-five, especially against Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

For whatever reason this postseason, Kucherov has not looked to shoot the puck. Instead, he preferred passing to Stamkos or other linemates who were cycled around with changes in the series. Washington figured this out early on in the series, and clogged the passing lanes for the Lightning right wing. Kucherov was being dared to shoot the puck at times in games six and seven, and it was not often that he took Washington up on it.

By shutting down Kucherov’s passing, Washington disabled his line. Stamkos, who was a destructive force this series on the man advantage, struggled to get the puck at even strength.

This was an example of what hockey coaches do. Trotz and his staff drew up a strategy on how to attack that line, and it helped win the series for Washington.

Yes, Kucherov could have been more bold with the puck. Yes, a number of Lightning players that had been playoff mainstays both this year and in years past were hard to spot during the final two games. The Lightning did not play their finest two games to finish. By the end, they looked out of ideas and out of gas. They did not adjust particularly well to the referees swallowing their whistles at the end of the series. There were missed opportunities, like what should have been a tap-in goal for Yanni Gourde that would have tied the game in the second period Wednesday night.

Regardless of any of that, the Tampa Bay Lightning controlled the action for large periods of game seven. In the first period and throughout the early parts of the second, Tampa Bay seemed to have the better of possession and setup. They were largely in control, save for an Ovechkin goal just 62 seconds into the game. The Lightning, in general, played a pretty good hockey game. The Washington Capitals played a really good hockey game.

Sometimes, blame is ultimately unnecessary. The Lightning will be a loaded roster coming into next season as well, as they have been in recent years. Expectations will be high once again. As so many people said after game seven, the “window” remains open. It was open on Wednesday night.

The problem was that the Washington Capitals walked through the door.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.