Capitals ride ‘unusual’ momentum shift to Game 1 win over Lightning

Alex Ovechkin scored a goal and chipped in with an assist to help the Washington Capitals defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final.

TAMPA, Fla. — Alex Ovechkin is sitting behind a podium with a couple of teammates following the Washington Capitals‘ Game 1 win, and he’s watching a highlight of himself on a wall-mounted TV to his right, while Jay Beagle talks to the assembled media about defence.

In Ovechkin’s defence, this isn’t self stargazing — he’s not smiling or pumping his fist while he watches himself wire that one-timer top shelf on the power play, or anything like that.

What Ovechkin’s blue eyes are glued to are the couple of seconds that turned out to be the massive turning point in Game 1 of this Eastern Conference Final, which saw the underdog Capitals earn a 4-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and on Tampa’s home ice, no less.

As Capitals head coach Barry Trotz put it, of that momentum shift: “It was quick. It was unusual. But it was a big moment for us.”

Indeed it was, all of those things. What a difference an extra player and two seconds can make.

With just seven seconds to go in the first period on Friday night at Amalie Arena, with Washington up 1-0, Lightning star forward Nikita Kucherov had just seemingly tied this thing up, bringing the crowd to its feet with a highlight-reel breakaway goal that he snuck past Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.

Oh, but not so fast. The Lightning had six skaters on the ice, and the goal was called back, prompting the blue-clad crowd to break into a “Ref you suck!” chant, which was way off base.

“Great call, obviously,” Holtby said, with no hint of a smile. “I don’t think any of us saw it, but it was pretty clear on the replay.”

Clear as day, and to both teams. “We were six men by a mile,” as Lightning captain Steven Stamkos put it.

Washington went on the power play, and the time on the clock remained a little over seven seconds, though the Capitals wondered whether it should’ve been more. “Me and [T.J. Oshie] were actually talking about whether we should ask the refs to check the time, bug them about maybe adding a second or two on to give ourselves 10 or 11 or 12 seconds,” said veteran Capitals defender, John Carlson, “but it turned out what it was.”

And it turned out it was more than enough time. On the ensuing power play, Ovechkin got a pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov off the draw, and he wired it past Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, glove side.

“Alex has a bigger sweet spot than most people, so it doesn’t have to totally be in his wheelhouse,” Trotz said of the lightning-fast pass. “They called it. They knew they didn’t have that much time.”

They didn’t, and sometimes that’s all it takes: In the blink of an eye, it went from what appeared to be a tie game to a 2-0 lead for the Capitals.

“You talk about those windows of opportunity that you have a chance in the playoffs to jump through and we did that,” Trotz added. “They had a little bit of misfortune and miscalculation in terms of it wipes off a goal and we get a chance and that was a window for us…

“In the playoffs, a lot of times you may get only one or two a game and that was one of those windows that we were able to execute on and take advantage of.”

On Friday, that little window served to break open the first game in this best-of-seven that’ll take the winner to the Stanley Cup final.

The ice had been tilted in Washington’s favour from the start. The Capitals took the 1-0 lead a little over seven minutes in, when defender Michal Kempny ripped one through traffic from the point for his first-ever playoff goal, which he celebrated with a healthy fist pump shortly after sucking the air out of Amalie Arena. It grew even quieter still at the end of the first, following Ovechkin’s power-play goal.

“I think anytime you score, even in the last minute of the period, it can be deflating to the team that gets scored on,” said Oshie, who had two assists in the win. “You have to come in [the dressing room] and watch the clock for 15 minutes and think about that goal that just went in that you wish you would’ve prevented. Just as important as getting that goal, I think the start to our second period to follow it up was just as important.”

Yes, Washington’s lead only extended from there, thanks to a couple near-misses that really worked in its favour.

Near-miss one: Capitals defender Dmitry Orlov dangled around Stamkos, then fed a nice little pass over to Brett Connolly, who nearly whiffed on the shot, but accidentally sent the puck right over to Beagle, who redirected it through Vasilevskiy’s legs.

Near-miss two: A couple minutes later, on the power play, Ovechkin almost whiffed on a one-timer from his spot on the off wing, but Oshie got that puck to the net, and Lars Eller jumped on the rebound to make it 4-0.

While the Capitals have to be happy with their start, they weren’t exactly up against the best of the Lightning, who had an NHL-best record in the regular season. It took Tampa Bay more than nine minutes to register its first shot on goal. Through two periods, the Lightning had just 10 shots compared to Washington’s 25, and Vasilevskiy was replaced by backup Louis Domingue to start the third period.

“They were playing an Eastern Conference Final and we were playing Game 38,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper looking none-too-pleased. “That’s basically what it was…

“We’re in a conference final and we didn’t treat it that way. I’m not taking anything away from Washington. They came out and executed their game plan. Played simple and earned their breaks. And we didn’t.”

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After allowing four straight goals, the Lightning did fight to get back in this one. Stamkos struck on the power play early in the third, dropping to a knee and one-timing a Kucherov pass past Holtby, cutting Washington’s lead to three. Ondrej Palat made it 4-2 with some seven minutes remaining, but that was as close as Tampa could get, with 21 shots compared to Washington’s 32.

“I think when we got the four-goal lead there, it’s almost a little bit out of our comfort zone,” Oshie said. “We took our foot off the gas and they had a good push, but those last couple minutes the guys made a point to block shots, to get pucks out and turn pucks over, and that’s good that that hasn’t left our game.”

Stamkos wasn’t making any excuses for his team, which had a lengthy rest period after beating Boston in five games in Round 2. “Listen, call it what you want, we need to be better next game,” the Lightning captain said. “It just wasn’t good enough tonight. In the playoffs, you’re down one game, it’s not the end of the world, we need to respond next game.”

Nobody in the Capitals dressing room is getting ahead of themselves at this point at a stage in the playoffs this team hasn’t made in 20 years.

“I think the first one’s very important, but like we saw in the last couple series, it’s a long series,” Oshie says. “Things happen, momentum sways back and forth, so hopefully we’re mature enough in here to understand that we’re gonna get a good push.

“I think we played a great game tonight but I can’t imagine we’re gonna see the same team we saw last night for the rest of the series.”

When the game highlights were finished and the channel changed to a commercial, Ovechkin’s focus shifted from the TV back to the room he was in, filled with media and cameras.

“We want to do the same next game,” he said. “And hopefully, the whole series.”

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