You just knew it was a bad omen when thunderstorms were rolling into the Nations Capital before the hockey team returned home to play their first set of Conference Finals games in 20 years. And when Tampa came to play, there was no denying that they were going to prove that the first two games were a fluke and they were going to show who the most complete team in the entire team all season looks like. This lead to a crucial Game 4. If the Caps won, they had a stronghold to a territory in postseason hockey this city hasn’t experienced in a generation. If they lost, every bad memory comes back. Every vitriol within every stereotype of the fan base returned. Every seed of self-confidence gets washed away with the rain going on outside.
Surely enough, the latter happened and it happened in the most Washington Capitals way possible. But it’s nothing short of a disgrace to anyone who thinks that that should be the lone narrative coming out of this game. Did the Capitals lose despite having the complete upper hand in shots on goal (more on that later)? Check. Did the Capitals lose because of one of those defenseman giveaways that traumatizes any fan that ever loved Mike Green? Check. Did the Capitals lose because Andrei Vasilevskiy stonewalled them in the exact same way Tom Barrasso, Jaroslav Halak, Henrik Lundqvist, Matt Murray, Evgeni Nabakov and Dwayne Roloson did before him? Check. Did the Capitals lose because Nicklas Backstrom simply can’t be counted upon to play at his absolute best and Lars Eller just looks so unbearably gassed defending the best in the world at the absolute worst possible time, just like untimely injuries and suspensions haven’t not hurt this team from postseasons past before? Check.
But as I’ve now been saying in my last couple of posts, this is the Conference Finals we’re talking about! If you look at my final Nerdy 30+1 rankings, we are now left with the #1, #3, #4 and the absolute worst among all the playoff teams. By the way, that absolute worst team has improved to such a point, they’re hardly recognizable anymore. Along with that, Washington got a tad lucky by beating only the 13th and ninth best teams in the NHL. Meanwhile, Tampa had to go through the 16th and second best teams. Winnipeg had to beat #8 and #5 while Vegas had to go through tied through 14th and #6.
So yeah, Washington’s needed a little luck on their side to get to where they are, and you will not find a Capitals fan that doesn’t think they’ve deserved it after the entire history of pain and suffering this franchise has dealt with. But they have taken that advantage with both hands and have rode themselves to a 2-2 series tie against the absolute cream of the crop. That said, the margins for error are gone and every opponent from here on out has proven from start to finish that they are the best in the world. Washington is just getting used to being this good again.
But boy could they have given themselves a 3-1 series lead. Especially after Orlov got his Yuzuru Hanyu on and shook the emotional cobwebs out of the arena with his first goal. But after that scarring turnover by Michal Kempny that led to the trademark passing that we expect to see out of Jon Cooper-coached teams. The energy simply left the building. It’s always the worst when your public address announcer wasn’t even done announcing who scored the home team’s goal.
Then, the first power play happened. As mentioned in blog posts past, Washington has been fine on the basic shot attempt front while Tampa almost never shoots, but they just use those, welp, Lightning quick passing that just saps your soul. Simply put, no NHL team can beat that mach speed passing and they beat everyone with about as much surgery as possible. If I’m penalty kill coach Lane Lambert though, I would simply dare Tampa to shoot from the point all penalty kill and goal from there, because I simply don’t know how else you can stop not only Steven Stamkos from handling the puck, but also Nikita Kucherov who can shoot and pass their way out of a telephone booth. Until then, understand that this is among the true definitions of hockey at its best.
To make matters worse, Washington had not one but three power play chances to tie the game back up. Despite having 11 shot attempts, with three of them being deemed high-definition variety, in those collective six minutes, that wasn’t enough for the fans to boo the team out, especially Andre Burakovsky, off the ice before intermission. As I stated on social media, I don’t disagree one bit any of my fellow friends for berating anyone booing to change their attitudes and root for them team. But until the entire city wins Championships the exact same way New York did during the Derek Jeter heydays, the exact same way Tom Brady and David Ortiz have done for Boston and the exact same way Terry Bradshaw and Mario Lemieux did for Pittsburgh, that tier of distrust will never go away. That applies to every city that never experiences what those aformentioned have gone through and have been constantly fed member berries by Sportcenter and other forms of mass media about their past glory as a result. We demand getting those member berries too.
But then, Barry Trotz told his troops to keep it simple. He knows his team can’t fire with fire anymore. In other words, these Capitals were only going to beat Tampa by slowing the game down with dump-and-chase, hard-forchecking hockey. But once they got the puck, they were going to wear out Tampa by keeping the puck below the goal line and behind the net for as long as they can until openings popped up. That start of play resulted in a 6-1 shot attempt advantage to start the second period until Alex Ovechkin set up Evgeny Kuznetsov with the prettiest of long-distance back-handed saucer passes you’ll ever see. And just like that, the fan base went full Philadelphia in terms of how they reacted towards their team. Now the building was alive and rocking again, with each passing play being received with a collective “Come on boys! We got this!”
And you genuinely thought the Capitals would get this win as the shots kept climbing and the Vasilevskiy saves were beginning to mount. Braden Holtby made one two off of Tyler Johnson and Kucherov to make sure he held his end of the bargain to end the period (more on him later). Again, Washington had chances in the third period. None were more glaring than Brett Connolly’s baseball batted shot that Vasilevskiy saw and reacted like a cheetah to swatted it away from goal.
And then, the real storm came. I don’t know what Jon Cooper told his troops at the first TV timeout of the first period, but he just has a way with each individual player the way only Pep Guardiola did when he’s coached the Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City soccer teams. They just play a system to such a perfection, almost no one can stop them when everyone is healthy and at their best and when everyone knows their roles.
After six shot attempts in an almost two-minute span, Lars Eller committed another penalty in the series to give Tampa it’s last power play attempt of the evening. It may not have resulted in a goal during that advantage, but they put up another six shot attempts and absolutely bludgeoned Washington’s defense until they couldn’t think or skate anymore. If anything, Alex Killorn’s game winner and they way that he easily went five-hole was inevitable. No other team in the league could have handled that pressure. You could argue that someone between Dmitri Orlov, John Carlson and T.J. Oshie should have communicated who was marking Ondrej Palat and Killorn, but I don’t know how you can prove to me otherwise that Tampa’s power play skated them out of the rink.
As a result, Washington’s legs were gone and the crowd followed suit. They simply didn’t have any gas to make a comeback and the damage is done.
Now Washington has still out attempted the Lightning all series 180.4-156.3 once you take into account score affects at even strength. But despite having a 38-20 shots on goal advantage in all situations in Game 4, the Capitals only had a 42.5-40.6 advantage in score affected shot attempts at even strengths. The Lightning are really starting to make their mark this series as a result. Along with that, the Lightning’s power play has intimidated Washington once they have the puck on their stick. Lastly, Braden Holtby just hasn’t been good enough this series. After playing so well these first two rounds, the 350-game threshold theory is hitting the 28-year old like a ton of bricks as his save percentage has only at 88.8% throughout the series. If that continues, just like Winnipeg’s issues, Washington could seriously become the third NHL team in history to blow a 2-0 series lead in a conference finals. Considering that this is D.C. we’re talking about, it couldn’t happen to them any other way.