TAMPA, Fla. — Evgeny Kuznetsov’s eyebrows raise a little bit and he nods, because of course he knew what was coming on Sunday night in Tampa, early in the third period, as he carried that puck down the ice on a two-on-one with Alex Ovechkin, who was tearing down the left wing.
“I just know I have to get it over there,” the Capitals centreman says, minutes after his team’s second straight dismantling of the Tampa Bay Lightning. “It’s pretty hard to stop that shot.”
It really is.
And the ensuing Ovechkin top-shelf goal, which made it 5-2 in an eventual 6-2 drubbing, really put an exclamation point on a Game 2 win, a second-straight road victory for Washington.
Now, this Eastern Conference final heads back to the capital with the Capitals up 2-0.
Where the Lightning stand in this best-of-seven can perhaps be summed up by an employee at Amalie Arena, who put his hands over his neck as though he was choking, and then proceeded to dig with a fake shovel.
As Lightning defenceman Ryan McDonagh puts it: “They’re making us pay.”
They really are. And though Washington was up 4-2 through two periods in Game 2, you had to wonder whether the Lightning could respond, could climb out of the hole they found themselves in. And then, just 3:34 into the third, there came the answer, in the form of Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, and that two-on-one.
Lightning defender Anton Stralman dropped to the ice to try to cut off the pass, Kuznetsov made a little fake as though he was going forehand, and then he dished a backhand pass cross-ice to Ovechkin, who hammered it home and double fist-pumped. It was his 10th of these playoffs.
Stralman was on his knees at the side of the net, afterward. When he got up, the veteran Swede smacked his stick against the post.
“We have so much more in us and we’re just not getting it out for whatever reason,” Stralman says. “They play great, play structured and they take it to us. We’re just not there, especially defensively. You don’t win any playoff games giving up six goals, that’s just the bottom line.”
The frustration is palpable, too. Near the end of the game, Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov gave a little kick to Brett Connolly, who earlier made it 6-2, emptying the seats at a very sad and silent Amalie Arena, which had been so amped up for the 8pm puck drop.
“That’s what you want,” Connolly says. “You want their star players to be frustrated. He’s a helluva player. You try to play him hard, and whether he likes it or not, I don’t think anybody cares. It’s playoff hockey, and we’ve got a chance to go to the final here, so everybody is playing as hard as they can.”
The Capitals are now two wins away from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, for a chance at that trophy they’ve never ever won, and they’re firing on all cylinders. Braden Holtby made 33 saves, Ovechkin had two points, Kuznetsov and Lars Eller had three apiece, and Washington got contributions from all four lines.
They also scored at the times it hurts most.
First, Tom Wilson deflected one home just twenty-eight seconds in, off a Matt Niskanen point shot, sucking the air out of Amalie Arena early.
Then, in the space of 59 seconds at the end of the second period, the Capitals struck twice. First, Jakub Vrana found Eller in front, and then Kuznetsov scored on the power-play when he threw a shot on net from a bad angle, which pin-balled its way in. The Kuznetsov goal came seven seconds into the power-play, and three seconds before the end of the second period.
In other words, in less than a minute, the Lightning went from a tie game to being down a pair, heading into the third. Can you think of anything more demoralizing?
“That’s the game-changer, I think,” says Kuznetsov, who has nine points in his last four games. “It’s always hard when you give up the goals end of the period.”
Those are the type that send the guys who gave them up back to their dressing room for 15 minutes to think about what they could’ve done differently.
“The attention to detail again, eight seconds left in the period and you’d think we’d learn from our mistake in Game 1,” Stamkos says, “but they get one and that’s really a killer going down 4-2 instead of 3-2.
“It’s little details of the game at this time of the year and they’ve executed and we haven’t.”
In good news for Tampa, unlike in Game 1, when Washington scored four in a row before Tampa could answer, they did respond early to that very early goal. In the first, Brayden Point scored at even-strength, and then Stamkos added one on the power-play, to give the Lightning their first-ever lead in this series, heading into the second period. But it was short-lived.
Devante Smith-Pelly evened things up early in the second, with the first of five straight Capitals goals.
“Going into the third we were energized,” Washington head coach, Barry Trotz says. “I’m not so sure they were because they got stung twice here [with late goals in the second]. It does have an effect. For how long, you don’t know. It might be two or three minutes, it might be five minutes into the period. I thought it was beneficial for us to get that late goal and we felt good going into the third and I thought we played a good third period.”
But, as with any win in this post-season, as soon as it’s over, the focus shifts to the next game, which comes Tuesday in Washington.
“It’s huge, but it’s not over yet,” Ovechkin says. “We’re going to come back home and do our thing and take another one. It’s going to be hard. It’s an experienced team, they have tremendous players over there and we just have to play the same way and don’t give them anything.”
Ovechkin is pretty stoic and business-like in his post-game interviews, with short answers and little visible emotion. But he smiles at the thought of heading back to the nation’s capital to play in a first conference final at home in 20 years.
“I can’t wait to go home and play the game, the fans gonna be all over the place,” he says. “We waiting for this moment long time.”