TAMPA, Fla. — Shortly after Ryan Callahan had been pushed into the puck that led to the goal that sunk the Washington Capitals, his eyebrows shot up and he opened his mouth, the way you do when you’re surprised, and then he yelled along with 19,000 fans who were holding flashing blue light sabres.
On the game-winning play in question, Tampa Bay’s veteran forward had been shoved while trying to get anything he could on an airborne rebound, and while on his knees, Callahan saw that the puck had somehow made it to the back of the net, thanks to his full-body effort.
“[Was I] surprised that I actually scored?” Callahan asked, minutes after the Lightning took a 3-2 lead in this Eastern Conference Final, with their third straight win over the Washington Capitals. “I’m joking,” he added.
But seriously, Callahan was still not exactly sure what happened on that play early in the second that stood as the game-winning goal in a 3-2 win on Saturday night at Amalie Arena, Tampa’s first victory on home ice in this series.
Callahan had been following Anton Stralman to the net on a rush, when he saw that rebound in the air. “Lucky enough, I get my stick on it,” he said, “and after that I don’t really know what’s happening, I’m getting pushed from behind.”
By Alex Ovechkin, no less, the Capitals captain whose back checking propelled Callahan into the puck, which bounced off Callahan’s glove, and in. And that’s the goal that means the Capitals are one loss away from elimination, and the Lightning are one win away from another trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
“It was huge,” as Stralman put it.
It was. And up until that point in the game, this one had been all Lightning. As Washington’s head coach Barry Trotz said, his team “Probaby [thought it was] an 8 o’clock start rather than 7:15.” Yikes.
The Capitals looked lifeless in the first period and for part of the second, and it wasn’t until they were already down 3-0 that they finally woke up.
“We stunk in the first,” as Capitals defender Matt Niskanen put it. He also called the first three goals “all my fault,” which isn’t fair, considering the first two involved neutral zone breakdowns and were the fault of just about every Capitals player on the ice.
“They just outskated us, out-battled us and the first shift in the second, I just got burned wide and they get another one,” Niskanen said. “It’s a pretty tall hill to climb, but the guys played really hard to make a comeback and almost tied it up there at the end….we’ve got to start on time next game.”
The Lightning were sure rearing to go. Just 19 seconds in, it was 1-0. At the end of the first period, the Capitals had four shots—only one from a forward, and another fired from the neutral zone—and Tampa Bay had two goals.
It was the fourth line of Callahan, Cedric Paquette and Chris Kunitz that scored goal No. 1, thanks to some solid forechecking. Callahan made a nifty little backhand hook pass over to Paquette, who put it over Braden Holtby’s right shoulder.
“Cally makes a great move to pull the puck with his hand like that to Ceddy,” said Kunitz (Kunitzy?) “Didn’t even look like Holtby was ready for it. Obviously that’s a big bonus for our line to go out there and contribute like that and get everybody into it.”
“Matched up against a line like Ovi, your main focus is keep the puck out of the net,” Callahan said, wearing a green plaid Lightning hat and a team hoodie.
They did quite the job, too as Ovechkin didn’t register a shot on net until the final couple minutes of the game. With 1:34 to go he wired a one-timer home to make it 3-2, though it was too little, too late.
The Capitals had sprung back to life before that, and early in the second, Kuznetsov deflected a Niskanen point-shot to cut the lead to two not long after Callahan’s glove goal. But you had to wonder how they were going to beat Vasilevskiy at least a couple more times to make a game of this.
John Carlson had a great look in close near the end of the second, but Vasilevskiy made the glove save, then later caught that puck while stretching over the back of the net, prompting the crowd to break out into “Vasy!” cheers. For good reason. You can see why captain Steven Stamkos calls it “a luxury” to have big No. 88 between the pipes.
And while Stamkos didn’t figure in the scoring Saturday, Tampa got two huge goals from its fourth line.
“To be honest, you are going to look at the box score heading in to tonight and say those guys don’t have a ton of points, but what those guys bring to our team is inspiring,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “They are heavy, they check, they are on the right side of pucks and one of the luxuries we have is it doesn’t matter who we put them out against, they are dependable.
“That’s what makes them valuable.”
You should’ve heard all the praise for Callahan, in particular.
“The way he plays right now, that’s the Cally I know,” Stralman said. “That’s why he’s one of the best power forwards in the league. He’s playing hard, finishing checks…”
Kunitz called him “a gamer.”
“He does everything, whatever it takes for his team. Anybody that would go out there on a 3-on-5 and throw your body in front of it is somebody you want on your team. You want to cheer and rally him on at any moment.”
For Callahan to get that winner, Stralman says, “was so great to see.”
And yes, Callahan admits, his second goal of these playoffs was a little surprising to see, too.
“I look up, I see the puck’s in the net, so there’s a bit of a surprise there, because I don’t know if it’s in or not,” he said. “It was good to see a goal there.”
Indeed. And now it’s back to the Capital for Game 2 in this best-of-three.