The Lightning took the lead in the first minute and survived a Washington charge in the last
Just 19 seconds into the game, the Tampa Bay Lightning scored to take the lead. With just 11 seconds remaining in the game, Andrei Vasilevskiy made a ranging save of a John Carlson shot that could have tied the game. Talk about end-to-end hockey.
Tampa Bay won on Saturday night for the same reason they managed to turn this series around after falling into an 0-2 hole: The Lightning showed the ability to adapt to changing situations and take advantage of what they were given, going with the flow of a hockey game that could easily have run out of their control.
Early on, the Lightning played aggressive, offensive-minded hockey. They held the puck, moved it around, and took frequent shots on net. The aggressiveness paid off right away, and success bred success with energy to spare on the ice and in the crowd. Once the Capitals started to make their push, Tampa Bay fell back into defensive hockey, and did a fantastic job blocking shots and interrupting shot lanes. Alex Ovechkin didn’t tally a shot on goal until late in the third period, just never getting a clean look at Vasilevskiy for most of the game.
It was a game of strange quirks. The Capitals took four shots on goal in the first period, and two of them came from the neutral zone. The Lightning managed just seven shots in the final 39 minutes of hockey and won the game. There was one penalty called in the hockey game for a grand total of two penalty minutes. Tampa Bay matched its fourth line of Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette, and Chris Kunitz against the mighty Ovechkin line and two of the three stars of the game went to members of that fourth line. It was the kind of game that demanded adaptability.
“To be honest, you look at the box score before tonight, and sit here and say those guys don’t have a ton of points, but what [Paquette, Callahan and Kunitz] bring to our team is inspiring.” Jon Cooper has a lot of confidence in that line this series. They were put up against the top line of the Capitals on Saturday night, and they were the only line that didn’t change when Cooper shook up the team earlier in this series.
The Lightning scored in the first 19 seconds of the game on a Cedric Paquette goal on the very first shift. For the first time in the series, they actually got to enjoy the benefits of home-ice advantage, and oh did they take advantage. Tampa Bay was able to control the action throughout the first period, pressing goalie Braden Holtby and getting the kind of prolonged time in the offensive zone that they hadn’t received in three of the first four games.
This had the added effect of sending the Amalie Arena crowd into a feeding frenzy. Amalie Arena exploded in the first minute of the game and the energy level stayed high throughout the first twenty minutes. It would have been hard for fans to not go crazy, especially after a goal by Ondrej Palat off a steal and pass from Nikita Kucherov. The 2-0 lead was a product of aggressive and at times dominant play not seen by the Lightning since their first round series against the New Jersey Devils.
The Capitals struggled to hold the puck, really for the first time this series. In the first period Washington managed just four shots. Two of those shots came from the neutral zone in the final two minutes of the period.
The second period started much like the first, with Tampa Bay scoring on its very first shift. This time it was Ryan Callahan with the rebound goal that was the product of chaos around the netminder. The 3-0 lead set the crowd on its ear and kept the Capitals grounded. Washington got their first goal later in the period, a T.J. Oshie redirect off a shot from Matt Niskanen to make the score 3-1, but the Lightning managed to slow their offense from there, primarily through the art of blocked shots. The Capitals had the better of the chances in the second, but the Lightning kept to their defensive assignments and didn’t allow many shots. The score held at 3-1 into the third.
For most of the game, Washington was winning physical battles. Tampa Bay simply wouldn’t get pulled into a fist fight on Saturday night. The Lightning concentrated more on their skating and controlling the puck when they could, perhaps wary of giving Washington opportunities on the power play. Still, the Capitals continued to press the action in the third period.
18:24 into the third period, with Braden Holtby pulled for an extra attacker, Alex Ovechkin got the Washington Capitals to within a goal when he ripped one past Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. It was his very first shot on goal of the night, which speaks to how well the Lightning played to contain the Capitals’ star player.
Once again, Andrei Vasilevskiy was asked to do a lot in the second and third periods. Once again, Vasilevskiy delivered with a nearly dominant performance, holding a desperate Washington surge in the final 39 minutes of play off just enough to finish the win.
Just a week ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup hopes seemed to be on life support. Now they go back to Washington a win away from the Stanley Cup Finals, facing a Capitals team that is reeling.
Professional athletes aren’t particularly impacted by negative history, or pressure. Hockey crowds are, though, and a team notices when the air gets sucked out of a building. The Capital One Center is certain to have a nervous atmosphere that only elimination playoff hockey can provide, compounded by the Capitals’ recent great teams and their frequent playoff runs cut short.
The Capitals have seen what kind of hockey works against the Lightning for them so far, so expect them to try to make the Lightning chase the puck as they did in games 1 and 2, and might have done in game 4 had Andrei Vasilevskiy not been in such a forbidding mood.
The hardest thing to do in hockey is eliminate a good team. Good hockey teams will throw everything they have into elimination games and fight with their backs to the wall.