TAMPA – The first meeting between last year’s Eastern Conference finalists was worth the wait for the Amalie Arena crowd.
Worth it not only because the Lightning scored a 6-3 victory over the Washington Capitals on Saturday night in which they set two team records, but worth it because the match was a spirited and intense affair full of hard hitting that often brought another sellout throng to its feet on St. Patrick’s Eve.
The win was the Lightning’s 55th, which broke the mark set last season. The two points gave them 114 to best the previous record of 113, also established in 2017-18.
Then there was Alex Killorn’s memorable evening in the form of his first-career hat trick with his third goal, the first of two Tampa Bay empty-netters, icing the win.
“It felt good, especially when the third goal seals the victory,” said Killorn, who has 16 goals. “We started the way we wanted to. Our forecheck was good. They played well in the second period and we turned the puck over a bit, but we stuck to our game all the way through.”
They had to against a Washington team that sits atop the Metropolitan Division with just a two-point over the second-place Islanders, who also lost on Saturday.
“That was two really good hockey teams going at it,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, whose team is 55-13-4. “It was a good little test from both teams. You’ve got to be able to look the other team in the eye and I thought we did that tonight.”
The Lightning, who were blanked by the Caps in Games 6 and 7 in losing last season’s conference final, scored three times in the opening period with Killorn scoring twice.
Killorn’s second goal of the period with four minutes remaining was a combination of skill and workmanlike effort. He picked up the puck inside his own blue line and skated into the Caps’ zone where he shrugged off the checking of defenseman Nick Jensen to get a shot away. Washington goalie Braden Holtby made the save, though Killorn buried his own rebound.
After the Capitals had the edge in play in the second period and closed the gap to 3-2 after 40 minutes, the Lightning got a goal at 2:45 of the third period from Erik Cernak.
Alex Ovechkin’s second goal at 12:56, his 48th of the season, cut the Tampa Bay lead to 4-3. With Holtby pulled, the Caps applied plenty of pressure, but could not get the equalizer.
Killorn completed his hat trick with 47 seconds left with a huge assist to Nikita Kucherov, whose hustle negated an icing before setting up his teammate’s milestone goal.
Yanni Gourde tacked on another empty-netter to complete the scoring.
“I thought he was, take the goals away, still one of the top players on the ice,” said Cooper of Killorn, who had six shots on goal, three hits and was a plus-2. “Just how physical he was, how he wanted the puck.”
The game was physical throughout, including midway through the first period when Washington’s Tom Wilson shouldered Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev hard into boards. Sergachev was down for a minute before leaving the ice under his own power and going to the dressing room. No penalty was called and he returned for the second period.
“It was a hard-fought battle and we knew what we were up against,” said Anthony Cirelli. “They are a strong, heavy team so we wanted to kind of match them. I think it shows we can play either game, if it’s the run-and-gun game or trying a little physical play. When it comes to playoff time every team is going to be good, every game is going to be a battle.”
Tampa Bay outhit the Caps 33-23, though Wilson (game-high seven hits) and Ovechkin, who came out flying and had three hits and a game-high seven shots on goal, hardly sat back.
Much the same will be expected when the teams meet in the nation’s capital Wednesday night. They meet for a third time in a span of 15 days when the Caps return to Amalie Arena on March 30, the Lightning’s last home regular season game.