Capitals stun Lightning in Tampa to take 2-0 lead back to Washington
TAMPA — Alex Ovechkin stood at one side of the dressing room, still wearing a sweaty long-sleeve shirt, but having changed into a pair of black swim trunks and flip flops.
At this time last year — or really any year in Ovechkin’s storied career — it would have been a fitting outfit for a player who never played hockey past May, much less Mother’s Day. But this year is different. Ovechkin isn’t beach-bound. The way he’s playing, he’s halfway to the Stanley Cup final.
Forget everything you previously knew about the Washington Capitals.
For once, this team didn’t fall to the Pittsburgh Penguins. For once, the players didn’t stub their toes in the second round of the playoffs. This year, the Capitals appear to be for real.
After Sunday night’s 6-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final, Washington is now just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 20 years.
“It’s huge,” said Ovechkin, who had a goal and an assist. “But it’s not over yet. We’re going to come back home and do our thing and take another one. It’s going to be hard. They have tremendous players over there and we just have to play the same way and don’t give them anything.”
For the Lightning, everything has to change.
In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, the Lightning had played their worst game of the playoffs. If there was a silver lining to grab hold of, it was that the team had been in this position before and lived to tell about it. In the previous round, Tampa had also been in embarrassed in Game 1, only to rebound with four straight wins against the Boston Bruins.
But this time is different. This time, the Lightning are up against an opponent that hasn’t stopped pushing since knocking off Pittsburgh in an emotional Game 7 win.
“It’s gut-check time,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who had a goal and an assist in the loss. “Let’s see who we really are. We have to win the next game, plain and simple.”
The best-of-seven series now shifts to Washington for Game 3 on Tuesday. It’s a game that the Lightning need to win. Then again, they needed this one too.
While the players weren’t calling it a must-win, no one wanted to head to Washington down 2-0.
“The pressure’s on us,” said Cooper.
The Capitals were the one’s applying pressure. The game had barely begun when Washington’s Tom Wilson scored 28 seconds after the opening face-off.
It was a deflating way for Tampa Bay to begin a game it needed so badly. And though the Lightning pushed back and took a 2-1 lead before the end of the period, Wilson’s opener turned out to be a sign of things to come.
Even without Nicklas Backstrom in the line-up, this is a Capitals team that seems to have figured out how to win at this time of year. Right now, they are getting everything: good goaltending, stifling team defence, production from all four lines.
“I said it this morning: everyone is stepping up,” said Ovechkin. “We played hard, we played smart and you can see all the four lines did their job. We didn’t force it. We just did our job.”
The Lightning are getting none of that. Whatever had worked against New Jersey and Boston in the previous two rounds has not worked against Washington. Still, this was a game that Tampa Bay allowed to slip from its grasp.
Despite going down 1-0 in the opening minute of the game, Tampa answered back and took a 2-1 lead on a pair of power play goals scored about three minutes apart. For a brief moment, it seemed that the Lightning had found what made them so successful.
And yet, all that goodwill was washed away in a second period that saw Washington score three goals, including two in the final 62 seconds.
With the game tied, a Tampa Bay defenceman blew a tire behind the net and gave up the puck to Jakub Vrana, who found Lars Eller in front for his fifth goal. Two seconds later, Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was called for goalie interference and the Capitals quickly made him pay by scoring on a bad angle goal with 2.9 seconds remaining in the period.
“That’s a game changer, I think totally,” said Evgeny Kuznetsov. “It’s always tough to give up goals at the end of a period.”
In the third, goals from Ovechkin and Brett Connolly put the game out of reach.
With 10 goals and 19 points in the playoffs — including two goals and four points in two games against the Lightning — Ovechkin has officially entered the Conn Smythe Trophy race. After all, he and the Capitals are now only two wins away from advancing.