WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Alex Killorn cheered and skated past his Lightning teammates on the bench and got a quick succession of side-fives, the saddest organ music played in a dejected Capital One Arena where, between depressing organ notes, you could’ve heard a pin drop.
Capitals goalie Braden Holtby took his helmet off and skated over to Washington’s bench and looked up at the big screen for the replay, and he watched Killorn stuff the eventual game-winner through his legs.
For more than 21 minutes in Game 4 of this Eastern Conference Final, the Capitals held the Lightning without a shot. They registered 38 shots to Tampa Bay’s 20. Washington had chance after chance, four power-plays and they controlled play for much of this game. And still, the Capitals lost and the Lightning won and now this series is tied 2-2 and headed back to Tampa Bay for a best-of-three.
“Of course it’s a missed opportunity,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said, just a couple minutes after he broke his stick over the crossbar, just after that buzzer sounded, just after Anthony Cirrelli potted the empty-netter with two seconds to go to make it 4-2, Lightning.
“It is what it is,” Ovechkin said. “Nothing we can do.”
Lightning centreman Tyler Johnson called it “not our greatest game.” He pointed out “we weren’t the better team for 60 minutes.” Head coach John Cooper said “we won a game where we didn’t have our ‘A’ game.”
But hey, does it really matter how you get it done?
“At the end of the day, in the playoffs they don’t really ask how, right?” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “They ask what the series is at, and we came in here and regardless of how well Washington played — which, I think they played really well — we found a way to win two games.”
They did, and of the two losses, this one has to sting more. It was Dmitry Orlov, the Capitals defenceman, who summed it up best: “We have a pretty game and we just need to find a way to score.”
They need to find a way to beat Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was outstanding.
It was Orlov who did find a way to score, though, early on. Some four minutes in, he made a nice little spin deke move to get around Brayden Point at the top of the circle, then wired one at the net. The rebound was picked up by T.J. Oshie, who passed it back out to Orlov, who one-timed it over Vasilevskiy’s shoulder.
But before the arena announcer had even finished announcing that one, Point struck for Tampa Bay on a giveaway that Michal Kempny will be having nightmares about. The Washington defender tried a not-so-nifty behind the back blind backhand pass in his own zone, which Johnson picked up, and then it was tic (Johnson), tac (Yanni Goude), one-time toe (Point).
The Lightning took the lead three minutes later on the power-play, when Stamkos one-timed a Point pass. Then the Lightning captain yelled “F—ing right!” and Point yelled “Let’s F—ing go!” But they didn’t go, really. Because about a minute later, the Lightning’s long no shots drought began.
So, too, did the signs that Washington was going to have a hard time beating Vasilevskiy again. The Capitals had four power plays and they held the Lightning without a shot for 21 minutes and 55 seconds, from the second half of the first through to the second half of the second.
It was late in that stretch that Washington finally broke through, when Ovechkin saucered a beauty backhand pass cross ice to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who ripped down the left wing and went five-hole to make it 2-2.
“Credit to them, they took it to us,” Johnson said. “Lucky for us we had Vasy back in the net there, calmed everything down after a while. We were able to reset there and had a better third.”
The Lightning treated the third like a whole new game.
“We’re not kidding ourselves, we knew we had a lot better than that second period,” said Stamkos, dressed head to toe in blue. “Coming into that third period, after what happened in the second, it was a 0-0 game in our mind. You go win a period, you win a game. You don’t know if it’s going to happen a minute in or with five minutes left. Then we defended like crazy at the end, and it was a win.”
The Capitals had so many chances to make it 3-2. Vasilevskiy robbed Brett Connolly on a redirect. He made a big blocker save on Kuznetsov, he made a couple big saves on Oshie. He was, without a doubt, the star of the game, with 36 saves.
“Oh, I didn’t think he played very well tonight,” Stamkos said, being all funny. “When you get this far in the playoffs you’re playing such good teams and there’s going to be nights like tonight where it just felt like everything we did didn’t go as planned, especially in that second period, and Vasy was there to bail us out. That’s why he’s one of if not the best goalie in the world.”
Vasilevskiy no doubt played his best game of this series. His best ever, though? “I don’t know about that,” Johnson said. “There’s too many to count. It’s gotta be up there, though.”
Now it’s back to Tampa Bay for Saturday night’s Game 5. This could be good news for the Capitals, considering the road ice advantage in this series — no team has won at home yet.
“We’re not going to look back, we’re just going to look forward” Ovechkin said, like he always says. “This group of guys has been in different situations all year and we fight through it. So it’s a huge test. We’re still going to have fun, we’re still going to enjoy it and we’ll see what happens. We’re going to Tampa and play our game and try to get a victory and come back home.”
“We’ll battle through it,” Capitals head coach Barry Trotz added, straight-faced. “This group has been resilient as hell all year and I don’t expect anything — nothing’s come easy to this team. Everybody knows that. This team’s just used to that, but we’re going to go to Tampa and expect us to respond.”
And then it’ll be back to Washington for Game No. 6, where, the Capitals hope, the organist will play a sunnier tune.