Energetic Capitals earn themselves Game 7 against Lightning

T.J. Oshie scored twice and Devante Smith-Pelly added another as the Washington Capitals forced a Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — T.J. Oshie just scored two goals in the game he said had to be the biggest of his life, and now he’s smiling and he’s totally gassed and he also can’t wait for Wednesday night in Tampa for the new biggest game of his life, and the chance to do this all over again.

Yes, the Stanley Cup Final is now one win away for the Washington Capitals, who handily beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6, igniting an absolutely bonkers hometown crowd and forcing this Eastern Conference Final to go the distance, a full seven.

“I think the hunger right now — well, I’m tired right now,” Oshie said, grinning, sitting at a podium beside the bearded guy named Braden who just posted a shutout, “but we’re excited to drop the puck in a couple days here and go to war.”

To war, indeed. The Capitals have earned the right to do so, after a 3-0 win that saw them play the best and most physical they have all series, and in front of a red-clad and screaming and towel-waving and starving crowd that hadn’t been treated to a home win this late in the playoffs in 20 years.

And boy, did the Capitals earn it. After dropping the last three games and inviting the Lightning to sit in the driver’s seat in this series, they came out firing, backs against the wall, all that jazz, with Braden Holtby posting his first shutout of the year (he only cares about the W, though) and the fourth line pitching in with a massive goal halfway through the third period.

“We played with not really a sense of desperation — I don’t think we felt desperate out there, but a pretty direct urgency, and it was throughout the entire lineup, from Holts all the way through,” Oshie said. “Everyone made an impact on the game tonight and that’s when we’re at our best.”

If you missed this game, that’s a shame. Because it really had it all. Chances aplenty, pucks ringing off posts, crazy good goaltending, a mascot named Slapshot rappelling from the rafters into the stands (that’s one bold bald eagle), Alex Ovechkin playing defence on a 2-on-1, Alex Ovechkin blocking shots, Steven Stamkos accidentally taking out one of his teammates, Devante Smith-Pelly accidentally taking out one of his teammates (he apologized), so many hits and even a short fight (Brooks Orpik versus J.T. Miller.)

How badly did Ovechkin want to keep alive his first shot at the Stanley Cup? You didn’t have to ask, and you couldn’t, anyway, since he didn’t address reporters after the game. But did you see the man? He was like a human wrecking ball, skating around like a shark, taking guys out, ripping shots on net, jawing at Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for who knows what, jawing at the referees, taking no prisoners.

“He was huge,” said Smith-Pelly, who scored the second goal in this game, sending this crowd into a tizzy. “He was flying around, he was finishing checks. He was skating hard, and when we see that and the crowd gets excited, we all feed off of it. He had a huge game and although he didn’t get a point or a goal or anything like that, guys on the bench definitely were feeding off the way he was playing.”

Ovechkin had his share of chances, but Vasilevskiy was once again outstanding. The Lightning goalie was the only reason this game was 0-0 as long as it was. In the first period, Vasilevskiy robbed more than a couple of Capitals, including playoffs-leading point-getter Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was on the doorstep with an apparent tap-in before Vasilevskiy sprawled across his crease and got his glove on it. Pure larceny.

But when it got to be 1-0, boy oh boy, Capital One Arena hit another level of loud and towel-waving.

The goal came late in the first, on the power-play, when Oshie got a Nicklas Backstrom pass and one-timed it home from the slot, over Vasilevskiy’s glove. Then Oshie smiled like a kid in a candy store and he opened his mouth and he yelled “Yeaaaaaaaah!” while Ovechkin shot up his arms and all the Capitals hugged.

“Being up 1-0, to get that power-play goal, that was huge,” said forward Chandler Stephenson, who figured big on goal No. 2. “It seemed like it was kind of at a standstill there for a bit, fast paced but nobody could break anyone.”

Washington came awfully close to making it 2-0 soon after, when Vasilevskiy stopped a Jakub Vrana one-timer, but the puck squeaked out and sat behind him, in his crease, ripe for the picking. Oshie dove in to knock it home, but Lightning forward Brayden Point just beat him to it.

While Vasilevskiy was the show-stealer early on, Holtby had to make a few key saves later in the game, including a big glove save on Ondrej Palat in the second that had this crowd chanting “Holt-by! Holt-by!”

Soon after, Smith-Pelly struck to make it 2-0, thanks to some solid forechecking from the Capitals’ fourth line. It began with a Jay Beagle and Stephenson forecheck to beat a near-iced puck, and then Stephenson backhand passed it to a wide open Smith-Pelly, right in front. Smith-Pelly put it five hole and then he removed his mouth guard and he threw out his arms and he yelled while he got hugs. It was happiness personified, and this crowd was buzzing yet again.

“If you saw my face, I was yelling,” Smith-Pelly said, eyebrows way up, smiling and nodding. “Any time you score in the playoffs, it’s huge and any time you score an important goal in the playoffs, it’s huge.”

The win, which was punctuated by an Oshie empty-netter, is also very huge. And now these Capitals have a chance to win one more and stay alive in their bid to win a first-ever Stanley Cup in franchise history.

“It’s going to be great,” Backstrom said, of the finale of this Eastern final. “That’s what we wanted and we’re ready to go down there. So far we’ve been playing pretty good down there, just the start last game. We can build some confidence after this win and go down there to win Game 7.”

“Going into Game 7, I don’t think I would want another – and I’ve been doing this for a while – I don’t think there’s a team I’ve ever had that I’d want to go into a Game 7 with,” Trotz added, with a smile. “What an opportunity, going into Tampa.”

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