For the past two days, the DC metro area was going through as few thunderstorms that were a bit too dangerous for everyone involved. Even when these storms came to an end, they didn’t leave without massive lightning shows that lighted up the night sky. I guess it was a bit of a bad omen of what ended up happening at Capital One Arena.
Simply put, a John Cooper coached and a Steve Yzerman run hockey team were never going to leave quietly this postseason. Even at such a precarious age, Andrei Vasilevskiy wasn’t just going to play like garbage throughout the next 120 minutes of postseason hockey. Most importantly, Tampa’s most talented forwards weren’t just going to leave these Conference Finals without an even strength goal to show for it. Surely enough, that all happened last night as only the roof of the arena was able to stave off the power that mother nature and Tampa’s hockey team unleashed.
Even if Washington had a 42-37 shot attempt advantage at even strength, it really became a 41.4-36.3 deficit to the Lightning when score adjustments are added. That’s what happens when you stare at a 3-0 deficit for as late as the halfway point of the second period.
Being able to defend Tampa’s power play has gone from a laughing anamoly to code red in terms of how hard the panic button should be pushed on the matter. As of now, the Capitals have had the following results against their three playoff foes on the penalty kill: 20-for-24 against Columbus, 14-for-19 against Pittsburgh and now just 7-for-12 against Tampa. Already, their five power play goals against is tied for the same amount they gave up in the entire Penguins series. Sure, they can do much better by simply giving up was less than than five power play opportunities last night, but what if I were to tell you that it’s not like the Capitals’ penalty kill has been that much of a disgrace either.
If anything, they are sitting fifth in shot attempt prevention, fifth in unblocked shot attempt prevention, eighth in shots on goal prevention and sixth in scoring chance prevention in relation to all 16 playoff teams. However, Washington’s 22.1 high definition chances against per hour is just 13th best among all the playoff teams. During the regular season, only Montreal and Chicago were worse than the Capitals when it came to that same statistic; a much worse rate of 26.0 high definition chances per hour.
The only difference was that the goaltending did it’s absolute best at limiting the damage. In the entire regular season, it was a close-to-league-average 87.4%. Since the trade deadline, team-Philipp Grubauer improved that number to 88.5%. In the playoffs, Washington’s goaltending has nosedived to an 81.5% shorthanded save percentage. Only Toronto and Philadelphia, two teams that were eliminated in the first round, had worse puck stopping ability on the penalty kill. Even if you want to talk about Barry Trotz and Lane Lambert needing to make adjustments, they already have done as much as they could up until this point to the point where they have improved their underlying numbers across the board. Unless they change the roster en masse, there’s just not that much they can do. Braden Holtby has been immense all postseason, but if he can’t stimy Tampa’s strength on his own, that’s where Washington starts to show cracks in this series.
As for other parts of the game, Tampa’s stars were stars last night. No player personified the team’s resurgance more than Nikita Kucherov: Tampa’s best player and Hart trophy nominee. After coming into Game 3 with just five shots on goal to show for it after putting up 279 in 80 games and 47 in Tampa’s 10 first and second round games, the 24-year old came with an absolute vengeance with his usual buzzing self. At his best, he skates like Evgeni Kuznetsov but with a hint more rage-aholic and his passing is up there with the best in the game. Surely enough, all of that was on display last night and he left the arena with six shots on goal and a goal and an assist. Five of those shots came on Tampa’s power play, but it was his first multi-point game since Game 4 of the New Jersey series and it was the most shots on goal he racked up since the start said series was over. If he gets going the rest of the way, oooooooooooooh boy.
But rather than being scared of the future, Washington simply has to continue to embrace the moment, just like they did in Games 1 and 2. You know Tampa Bay, the best team in my power rankings the majority of the season, were never going to go quietly. There will be plenty more stressful nights along the way. Maybe it’s finally time to unleash Nicklas Backstrom, even if he can’t handle a stick properly, Charlie Conway-style, due to his broken hand. But at this point in postseason hockey, there’s just no time for teams to make final adjustments. It’s simply mano-e-mano because this is the cream of the crop of the sport. There’s almost no weaknesses among the best of the best.
The final four has been a well deserved bunch and they got their by not showing any holes in their game. From here it’s all about imposing their strengths best. Washington did so in Games 1 and 2. Tampa did so in Game 3. The rest of the way is just a toss up. Here’s hoping it falls on DC’s side for once. In the meantime, let’s pray for no more storms.