WASHINGTON, D.C. — Almost nobody who saw Victor Hedman’s first goal of these NHL playoffs live and in person cheered or applauded or waved their towel, when the towering Tampa Bay Lightning defender one-timed the puck into a near-open net in the capital on Tuesday night.
Hedman didn’t seem to mind the silence, though.
The 27-year-old Swede did a bunch of cheering himself here at Capital One Arena, while the sea of fans in red looked on, silently and sadly, and then he dropped his six-foot-six frame into a low fist pump.
Finally, a goal for Hedman in this post-season. And finally, a win for the Tampa Bay Lightning in this Eastern Conference Final.
As Hedman put it, “It’s huge.”
Indeed. With a 4-2 road victory on Tuesday that saw Tampa Bay lead from start to finish, the perennial contenders at this stage have made it a series with the Capitals, cutting Washington’s lead to 2-1.
And the constant in the first three goals Tampa scored on Tuesday was Hedman, with his long-awaited goal to make it 3-0 early in the second period coming on his 29th shot of these playoffs.
“Obviously [Nikita] Kuch[erov] made an unbelievable play on my goal, and I had an open net,” Hedman says, wearing socks and sandals and a hoody and blue shorts and a backwards hat, sitting beside Kucherov on a post-game podium, set up on the hard court where the Wizards usually play basketball.
“For me it’s about being effective at all ends of the ice and trying to be a difference-maker every time I step on it,” Hedman says. “I’ve got to keep that going.”
Despite the fact this was goal No. 1 for Hedman, he has been, as always, a visible and steady presence all post-season long.
“He’s a perennial Norris guy,” as captain Steven Stamkos points out. “We can’t describe how good he is out there. We rely on him a ton—he’s a horse. Most nights, if he’s’ going well, we’re going well as a team, so another big effort from him tonight. You could see we all followed suit.”
It was Hedman who set up goals No. 1 and No. 2 on the power play, dishing passes to the most reliable trigger-men on this team, in Stamkos and Kucherov. Stamkos converted first, with about six minutes to go in the opening period, wiring one home from his usual spot on the off-wing—that shot you know is coming, but you still can’t stop it.
And the goal was a big one, because finally it meant the Lightning earned an early lead, and because, in the early goings of Game 3, they really did not look like a team that deserved to win this one.
It wasn’t until nearly seven minutes in that Tampa Bay registered its first shot, and Tyler Johnson got nailed by Tom Wilson right after he put that puck on net. But after they killed a penalty around the half-way mark of the first, the Lightning seemed to wake up.
And once Stamkos fired home that laser beam, they began to look more like the team that won more than any other in the east this regular season. When Kucherov added a second power play goal early in the second and Hedman potted that easy-looking third, you had a feeling the Lightning were going to get that first win.
“We knew we had to come in here and win hockey games,” Hedman says. “I liked the way we responded tonight.”
In other words, the first Eastern Conference final on Washington’s home ice in 20 years didn’t go exactly as planned for the Capitals, though the raising of a new banner to the rafters — it says ‘All Caps’ and was ridden by the team mascot, an eagle named Slapshot — went off without a hitch pre-game, and the crowd didn’t give up on their “Let’s go Caps!” until it was officially over.
Just as Tampa Bay had struggled to recover from deficits in the first two games of this series, the Capitals couldn’t dig themselves out and play their way back into Game 3, either.
While Brett Connolly breathed life back into these Capitals and this crowd when he made it 3-1 mid-way through the second, beating Vasilevskiy blocker-side, the euphoria was short-lived.
Lightning centreman Brayden Point scored his sixth of the post-season six minutes later, firing one through traffic and legs to make it 4-1. When Evgeny Kuznetsov scored his ninth of the post-season to make it 4-2, with about three minutes to go, there were a lot of empty seats in Capital One Arena.
As Lightning head coach Jon Cooper put it, with a sigh and a grin, “It’s just so much better to play with the lead.”
“I know we had the lead for a brief part in Game 2 but to get the multiple goal lead, that was a big thing for us,” Cooper says. “They get that 3-1 goal and the building is kind of hopping a little bit and they pushed, but our big push was Pointer getting that fourth one, kind of popped the balloon.”
Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Vezina nominee, had by far his best game of this series, making 36 saves. It helped that his teammates made it a heck of a lot easier on the 23-year-old Russian, limiting odd-men rushes that dominated Games No. 1 and 2. He was due for an easier night, no doubt.
“I think we always feel like we owe him,” says Anton Stralman, the veteran defenceman who saw a little more than 24 minutes of ice Tuesday. “He’s our best player. He’s always there for us and tonight we did a good job in front of him. I think that gives him some confidence, too, that he knows we’re on and that’s the way it should be.”
The Lightning had a different look in this one, too: Stamkos — who took a shot off the leg and left the game for a bit, but came back and sported an ice cap on his knee cap post-game — played alongside Kucherov, as per usual, but with Ondrej Palat on the left wing, a shake-up from their usual trio with J.T. Miller. The top three lines all had a slightly different look.
“We probably needed to spring a little life into our group,” says Cooper. “It’s been a heck of a run, but we really haven’t changed our lineup at all getting to this point. You have to make adjustments at some point to give your team what you feel is the best chance to succeed. It just happened to work out tonight.”
The difference in Game 3, Cooper says, was pretty simple: “We checked. That was it.”
And certainly it had to be a relief that the Lightning made a few adjustments, and got the result they’ve been seeking. But of course, this series is just getting started, and more adjustments will be coming from both teams for Thursday’s Game 4, back in the capital.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Stamkos says. “The goal is to win a championship, but you can’t look too far ahead. We’ve made it a series. That’s what we came in here tonight to do.”
“Very happy with the way we played from start to finish, but we can’t pat ourselves on the shoulder,” Hedman adds. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”