WASHINGTON — It was about an hour before the start of Game 3 when Nikita Kucherov grabbed a ball and glove and began to play catch in the middle of a hallway with a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s communications staff.
It seemed like an odd way to warm up before the most important hockey game of the season. Then again, it certainly drove home the point of not dropping the ball again.
“We know it’s a critical game,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos had said. “There’s no secret. We’ve dug ourselves a hole here, but by no means is it something that we can’t overcome.”
To suggest that the Lightning players needed this one was an understatement. After losing the first two games of the Eastern Conference final at home, everyone knew how high the stakes were for Game 3. It wasn’t technically a must-win, but another loss and you could pretty much kiss the series goodbye.
For that to happen, Tampa Bay’s best players — forwards Stamkos and Kucherov and Brayden Point, defenceman Victor Hedman and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy — needed to answer the bell.
In Games 1 and 2, Washington had received all-star efforts from Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby. In Game 3, the Lightning’s stars shined back in a 4-2 win that turned this into a series again.
“It doesn’t matter who scores, as long as we win,” said Stamkos. “But obviously, it’s nice to perform at this time of the year. You always want to step up. We knew we needed a desperate game from our group today and we got it.”
Stamkos, Kucherov and Point each had a goal and an assist, Hedman had a goal and two assists, while Vasilevskiy, who stopped 36 of 38 shots, reminded everyone why he was named a Vezina Trophy finalist this season. It was a clutch performance. And the Lightning, who are still down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, will try to do it again in Game 4 in Washington on Thursday.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” said Stamkos. “The goal is to win a championship, but you can’t look too far ahead. We’ve made it a series.”
After charging out to a 1-0 lead in the first period — the first time in the series that Tampa Bay scored first — the Lightning led by scores of 3-0 and 4-1 in the second period and never looked back. This was more like the Tampa Bay team that had rolled over New Jersey and Boston in the previous two rounds, rather than the team that had been outscored 10-4 in Games 1 and 2 against Washington.
Much of that was because of the Capitals, who gifted the Lightning two power play goals in an undisciplined game that was decided by special teams.
“Nobody said it was going to be easy,” said Ovechkin. “We were ready for it and nobody was going to give up … I don’t think they were more desperate. They just scored power-play goals, and we didn’t.”
A Braden Holtby tripping penalty on Yanni Gourde led to a Tampa Bay power play at 12:57 in the first period. And the Lightning, which has been so deadly with the man-advantage in these playoffs, made the Capitals pay for it. Setting up in his office at the left faceoff circle, Stamkos perfectly one-timed a cross-ice pass that Holtby had zero chance on.
It was Stamkos’ sixth goal of the playoffs and his third power play goal of the Eastern Conference final.
It was also one of the few times in this series that the Lightning weren’t chasing the game, something that the Capitals had exploited in Games 1 and 2. Now that Tampa Bay was in charge, you could feel the knot in the players’ stomachs start to loosen.
In the lead and in charge, the Lightning took control of the game with two goals in the first four minutes of the second period. First, Kucherov blasted a one-timer on the power play. And then, with the Capitals still reeling, he set up Hedman in the slot a couple of minutes later.
“They’re your top players because to get to this point you need to make sure you have 97-plus points during an 82-game season, and those guys were a big reason that we got to that point,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “When you get to the playoffs, really it’s the team that wins. Usually there’s a different hero every single night. That’s how we’ve advanced. I don’t know who you’re grouping in the top players, but you think of Kucherov and Stamkos, those guys leading the charge, when we’ve needed them in the big games … those guys have delivered when we’ve needed them. Oftentimes that’s what those guys do — they come in when you need them.”
A late goal in the second period from Brett Connolly and another from Evgeny Kuznetsov in the third made it interesting. But Washington’s power play could not connect on its opportunities the way that Tampa Bay had. Part of it was Vasilevskiy, who made the big saves when he needed to, but the bigger difference was that the Lightning was not constantly putting their goalie in a position to bail them out of trouble.
As Cooper had said of Games 1 and 2: “It’s 2-on-1 after 2-on-1. And it’s not Jon Cooper going in with a 2-on-1 — it’s Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, so there’s a big difference there. We have to limit those.”
They did. And if they can do it again, this series could be heading back to Tampa all tied up.
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