Vasilevskiy stands tall, Lightning hold on
Washington, D.C.- In the aftermath of game two of the Eastern Conference Finals, Andrei Vasilevskiy was a beaten goalie. He allowed 10 goals in two games and his team was down two games to the Washington Capitals. With the series shifting to Capital One Arena in D.C., Vasilevskiy raised his game to get the Tampa Bay Lightning in the series with a convincing game three victory. He raised his play another stop in Thursday night’s game four.
As in game three, Washington came out flying. They landed the first four shots and controlled the pace of play. However, unlike on Tuesday, they got one puck through Vasilevskiy early. A long offensive shift on his doorstep took Vasilevskiy out of position. T.J. Oshie move the puck to Dimitri Orlov, and the Novokuznetsk, Russia, native got Washington on the board 4:28 into the game. However, the Capitals almost immediately began a frustrating trend for their sold out crowd: missing opportunities. While Wes Johnson, the PA Announcer, announced the scoring, Tampa Bay silenced the crowd. Brayden Point knotted the game on a back door cut following a Capital turnover and quality passing from Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson.
The situation got worse for DC as Lars Eller took an ill-advised holding minor. A minute and five seconds into the power play, Stamkos took a Point pass and whistled it through Braden Holtby to put Tampa Bay ahead 2-1. Washington controlled the pace of play for the rest of the period, and were aided by three Tampa minors. However, the Capitals shot themselves in the skates with bad passes, accidental zone exits, and over passing. They outshot the Lightning 15-7, but they either misfired or decided to not shoot on several key opportunities. Despite playing three consecutive power plays in the late first, the Capitals sat on the puck or solo-handled into bad passes. Their poor decisions drew loud boos from their fans as the Lightning led 2-1 at intermission.
Washington again dictated pace in the second period, out shooting the Lightning 14-6. They still had their share of misfires, but kept control and gave their fans reason for optimism. Only 5:18 into the period, Alexander Ovechkin sprung Evgeni Kuznetsov free for a solo shot on Vasilevskiy. The Russian fired on his countryman and tied the game to the approval of the rabid Capitals fans. Washington continued to fire on Vasilevskiy, but he was perfect the remainder of the night. He stopped 13 shots in the second, and kept the Lightning from falling behind. The game entered the final period tied.
Capitals fans knew to expect a frenzied attack from their squad in the third. But they’ve seen this movie before. In 2010, Yaroslav Halak stopped 131 of 134 shots in the final three games of a first round series to lead Montreal over the highest scoring team of the 21st century. In 2016 and 2017, the Penguins robbed the Caps of series wins with Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury respectively. The Capitals lost all of those series as the President’s Trophy winners and favorites.
Tonight, the same song played. This new verse was about Andrei Vasilevskiy recording 9 of his 36 saves in the final period. Tampa Bay only got six shots of their own, but they found a lead. With 10:09 left in regulation, Lars Eller took another hooking minor. The Capitals killed off the ensuing power play. However, they failed to clear the zone. Mikhail Sergachev made an initial play to Ondrej Palat. Palat moved the puck to the doorstep where Alex Killorn made a move around Holtby to open up the Vezina winner. Tampa claimed a 3-2 lead and would not relinquish it. DC pressured Vasilevskiy, and even pulled Holtby to get more pucks on net. But it was not enough. Anthony Cirelli finished the scoring with an empty netter. The Lightning won the most competitive game of the series in Washington D.C. and evened the series at two games apiece.
Tampa Bay was over the moon about Vasilevskiy after the game. Head Coach Jon Cooper explained, “You love those games where you don’t need your goaltender to be great. But when your team doesn’t have their A-game, you need your goalie to have it. And he had it tonight.” Captain Stamkos added, “When you get this deep into the playoffs, you’re playing such good teams. There’re gonna be nights like tonight where everything we did didn’t go as planned, especially in that second period. Vasy bailed us out. That’s why he’s one of the best goalies in the world. He’s given us chances throughout the year to win, and tonight was another example.”
Despite the praise for their netminder, the Lightning were well aware of their faults after games three and four. Tyler Johnson noted, “I don’t think we were the better team for 60 minutes tonight. But we got the win, so we’ve gotta move forward and play a strong 60 for game five.”
The road team has won all four games of this series. Tampa Bay has scored a power play goal every game this series and is scoring %37.5 of their time on the man advantage.
With his goal, Evgeni Kuznetsov moves into a tie for most playoff points with 21. Kuznetsov and Ovechkin are tied for the second most goals among playoff scorers with 10 each. Lars Eller has taken five penalties through this series and three of those minors led directly to goals. Nicklas Backstrom returned to the lineup for the first time since blocking a shot with his hand in game five of their Pittsburgh series.
Capitals’ Head Coach Barry Trotz was optimistic, but still harped on his team’s need to improve. “We had some looks late. This group has been resilient. Nothing has come easy for this team, as everyone knows. I expect that we will respond as we have all year.”
Lars Eller has taken five penalties through this series and three of those minors led directly to goals. Trotz was critical of him after the game. “That’s too many penalties. That’s on Lars and no one else. He’s been great in this series. We just need to get him out of the box.”
Braden Holtby recorded 16 saves on 19 shots faced.
The series will go at least six games. Game five will be played in Tampa on Saturday night. Puck drops at 7:15 pm Eastern. Game six will be in Washington DC on Monday night. Puck drops at 8 pm Eastern.