TAMPA, Fla. — Sometimes it’s about giving 110 per cent. Or something like that.
After being told that Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper had said his team needed to increase their energy level by 5 per cent from the second round to the Eastern Conference final, Alex Ovechkin was asked how the Washington Capitals planned to respond.
Simple, he said: “We have to elevate 10 per cent. And we’re going to do that.”
Clichés aside, the Capitals followed through on that promise. If there was any concern that this team was content with having reached the Eastern Conference final for the first time in 20 years, Washington put it to rest in a dominating 4-2 win in Game 1.
This was a statement win. And the statement might have been to themselves more than the Lightning, who will be searching for answers heading into Game 2 on Sunday night.
“Our goal wasn’t just to get this far,” said Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, who made 18 saves in likely his easiest win of the post-season. “We know they’re going to come even harder next game. We’re going to have to have an even better game.”
Following an emotional second-round series win against the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this week — the first time that Ovechkin had gained the upper hand on Sidney Crosby — the talk had been about how the Capitals might have emptied the tank. If anything, that win might have had the opposite reaction.
This didn’t look like a team running on fumes. Instead, the Capitals looked calm and in control, as though getting over their post-season hump had lifted a giant weight from the players’ shoulders. In particular, Ovechkin played with the freedom of a man who had been waiting his entire career to for this moment.
“I think we just realized now we have to play our way,” said Ovechkin, who has nine goals and 17 points in the playoffs. “It doesn’t matter which position we are, what round it is. It’s effort. Everybody was paying the price. It shows.
“We tried to create a moment for our side.”
The Washington captain, who as the gap-toothed face of the franchise had probably worn the previous post-season disappointments more so than any other player, had one of his best games of this year’s playoffs. He provided a screen on the first goal, scored the second on an absolute rocket, and then picked up an assist on the fourth.
The rest of the team followed his lead.
From the opening faceoff, the Capitals dominated the offensive zone, outshooting and out-chancing the Lightning. At the 7:28 mark, they were rewarded for their effort. A long-range wrist shot from defenceman Michal Kempny found its way through a maze of bodies and beat goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to give Washington a 1-0 lead.
At the other end, the Lightning looked sluggish and out of sync. Their chances were few and far between. The one time they found the back of the net, the result was a no-goal and a too-many men penalty.
“We were six men by a mile, so I don’t think anyone is fired up by the goal,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “But anytime you give up a goal at the end of a period, it gives momentum to the other team. That’s just execution.”
It turned out to be a pivotal moment for both teams. After a Washington giveaway, Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov was sprung for a breakaway, in which he beat Holtby with a gorgeous deke. But the goal was quickly waved off because the Lightning had too many men on the ice. Instead of it being a tie game, the Capitals were given a power play and made the most of the opportunity with Ovechkin blasting a one-timer with just six seconds left in the period.
“Alex has a bigger sweet spot than most people, so it doesn’t have to totally be in his wheelhouse,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “They’re high-skilled, high-execution type guys and it worked out. They called it. They knew they didn’t have that much time. So, they have a plan every time they go out there.”
The Capitals, who outshot the Lightning 25-10 through 40 minutes, kept pouring it on in the second period.
Jay Beagle made it 3-0 on a broken passing play. And four minutes later, Washington essentially chased Vasilevskiy from the net when Ovechkin fanned on a shot that landed on Lars Eller’s stick.
The Lightning, who began the third period with Louis Domingue replacing Vasilevskiy in net, got two quick goals. But by then, the game was practically over.
“They were quicker to pucks, they more structured, they were better on special teams. That’s a pretty recipe to win,” said Stamkos. “It’s a missed opportunity.”
Indeed, this was as one-sided a win as you could have imagined. And for the Lightning, it was nothing new. In the second round, Tampa Bay had faced a Boston Bruins team that was riding a wave of momentum following a Game 7 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs, losing 6-2 in the series-opener.
The challenge will be to do the same against the Capitals, which might not be easy if Nicklas Backstrom manages to return from a hand injury that kept him out of Washington’s past two games.
In other words, a team that gave 110 per cent could find a way to give even more.
CAPS STILL WAITING ON BACKSTROM
Nicklas Backstrom missed Game 1 of the Eastern Conference with a right-hand injury suffered while blocking a shot in the second round.
The Washington Capitals centre, who missed the series-clinching win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, has not practised with the team since getting hurt. As to the severity of the injury, head coach Barry Trotz suggested the team is expecting him to return at some point in the series.
“When Nick comes to me and the (team’s medical) staff says he’s ready to go,” said Trotz, who had classified Backstrom as a game-time decision for Friday night, “I don’t there’s a coach in the National Hockey League that’s not putting their top player, like Backstrom, back in the lineup.”
Despite no longer playing on a line with Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom still scored 71 points this season. He had 13 points in 11 playoff games before his injury in Game 5 against the Penguins.
“Everybody knows Nicky is a top guy,” said Ovechkin, “but you can see the effort we had against Pittsburgh (in Game 6). I think it will be fine.”
Lars Eller took Backstrom’s spot on the second line, alongside wingers T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana.
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