Through Two Games, Lightning Overpowered In Eastern Conference Final

Lightning down 0-2 and looking outplayed by Capitals

For the vast majority of the first two periods Sunday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning looked like they’d made some clear adjustments to the Washington Capitals based on their game one loss. In the final 1:02 of the second period, it started to unravel. The game had been tied 2-2 in what was a fantastic matchup of two hockey teams getting their fair share of scoring chances.

The Washington Capitals started to control the puck. They got their first power play of the night, and while they didn’t score, they controlled the game from that point. They eventually broke a 2-2 tie on a goal that involved Anton Stralman falling behind the net and ending up behind the play as a result. With the score 3-2 and Amalie Arena stunned, Washington drew a power play with 9.8 seconds left in the second period. The call was tripping against Andrei Vasilevskiy, whose back was turned when a Washington player tripped over his leg pad.

It took the Capitals 6.9 seconds to score on the power play, the second time this series that they’ve scored in less than ten seconds on a power play that started with less than ten seconds remaining in a period.

Early in the third, the Capitals extended their lead to 5-2 on an Alex Ovechkin goal care of an odd man rush. The goal was a textbook display of how prepared the Capitals have been for the Lightning this series so far. They took advantage of a risky Tampa Bay pass to create an odd man rush, then waited out Anton Stralman’s dive to the ice so Evgeny Kuznetsov could find Ovechkin for the goal.

The sense that the Capitals have turned the corner and become a team of destiny after dispatching the Pittsburgh Penguins is growing with every game. Their performance in the first game of the series led to a decisive victory, and it seemed that they just wound the Lightning down in game two.

Really, the Lightning only played poorly for about a five minute stretch from the end of the second period into the beginning of the third. Problem is, the Capitals are playing so well right now that five minutes of a lapse was enough to give the Caps room to take the lead and run away with it. The lead was extended to 6-2 on a rocket of a wrist shot from Brett Connolly. The Capitals dismantled the Lightning over the first two games, and they look ready for the biggest stage in hockey after a long journey to the top.

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) celebrates with center Evgeny Kuznetsov (92) after Ovechkin scored against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period of Game 2 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals hockey playoff series Sunday, May 13, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. The Capitals won the game 6-2. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

In game one, Washington used the neutral zone trap to slow down the Lightning and force them to work hard just to get the puck in the offensive zone. When Tampa Bay did get a chance to set up on offense a bit, the Capitals did a good job at getting in the way of the puck and blocking shots. For the first two periods in particular, they kept the Lightning from getting anything going against Braden Holtby.

In game two, the Capitals wasted no time. They scored just 28 seconds in, controlling the puck from the opening faceoff and getting a long goal by Tom Wilson off of a rebound. Still, despite the quick goal, the Lightning seemed to have a more effective approach in the first period. They had a few early chances, then scored quickly on their first power play to even the game on a J.T. Miller tap-in goal.

The Lightning showed almost right off the bat that their adjustment to the Washington trap that had stymied them in game one was to skate right through it. Tampa Bay is said to have a considerable speed advantage in this series, and they decided to take advantage of that on Sunday night in an effort to break up the Capitals’ stifling defense. It led to early calls, and power play opportunities create offense almost by default. A second power play led to a Steven Stamkos goal, the product of great puck movement that found him all alone to Holtby’s right to give the Lightning their first lead of the series.

If the Lightning have one offensive problem this postseason, it’s indecisiveness. There are times when they’ll get into the offensive zone and wait so long for either a shooting or passing lane to redeal itself that they get neither off effectively. This happened to J.T. Miller early in the second period, when he was in the offensive zone with space but waited too long for a play to develop, resulting in a turnover. Seconds later, Devante Smith-Pelly put home the Capitals’ second goal of the night to tie the game.

Coach Jon Cooper looked to that exchange as the real turning point of the game. “The game changed when we had for on one, or I forget the numbers on the rush we had, and didn’t do anything with it except turn it over, and it ended up in the back of our net.”

The first two periods of the game were very even, very end-to-end, with both teams able to set up their ideal offenses. The best sign for the Lightning in all of this was how the first line of Johnson, Stamkos and Kucherov were able to get their scoring chances, and bury them. This could end up being a very offense-heavy series, meaning the Lightning need all the help they can get from their shooters and scorers.

This was not the smother-and-create, Washington-heavy kind of game that the series opener turned out to be. Instead, this one was almost made for entertainment purposes. Both teams had their offensive looks. Both teams hit hard. Both teams skated hard, with featured players putting on a display. It was hockey the way you would choreograph it, all end to end action and skill on full display. Even the goalies got involved, with Andrei Vasilevskiy making a number of highlight-reel saves.

From here, the series shifts to the nation’s capital, where the Lightning blue of the Amalie Arena crowd will be exchanged for the Capitals’ red jerseys. As always in the first two road games of a series, the Lightning’s goal will be to take at least a split back to Tampa. Winning just one game in Washington is necessary to restore home ice advantage in the series for Tampa Bay, and indeed necessary for Tampa Bay to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, having lost a home game already. An encouraging sign, then, comes from the regular season. The Lightning and Capitals played two games at the Capital One Arena this season, and split them. The Lightning won the most recent meeting in DC 4-2 on February 20, a game which featured Nikita Kucherov’s undressing of Braden Holtby.

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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.