Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Malone, Dominic Moore

Tampa Bay rides Game 7 momentum, beats Washington 4-2 in Game 1

With stars like Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos on each side, the marquee matchups dominated much of the talk going into tonight’s Game 1. While Stamkos ended up notching the game-winner, it turned out that Tampa Bay’s lesser known players came up big, too.

The Lightning carried their first round momentum into this contest, winning their fourth playoff game in a row and boosting their away record to 4-0 in the postseason. The Capitals weren’t outright atrocious, but a dull output might be equally troubling.

Tampa Bay 4, Washington 2; Lightning lead series 1-0

Sean Bergenheim continues to provide some much-appreciated depth scoring for the Lightning. He scored a goal about two minutes into the game, which brings his goal-scoring streak to three games and his overall points streak to five (four goals and one assist).

The Capitals were one of the best teams in the NHL at bouncing back from early deficits, so it wasn’t that surprising when Alexander Semin tied it up less than two minutes later. Things got that much worse for the Lightning when speedy sniper Simon Gagne needed help getting off the ice after a hard, but legal hit by Scott Hannan. It seems like Gagne is “OK” but he didn’t return during Game 1 and his status will be re-evaluated on Saturday.

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Brooks Laich appeared to give the Capitals 2-1 a lead, but as you can see from the video, he clearly kicked the puck in. The game ended up tied 1-1 heading into the first intermission.

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The Capitals didn’t take long to make that 2-1 lead a reality as Eric Fehr finished off a nice face-off play by burying a one-timer after a nice setup by Jason Chimera. The Capitals managed to hold that lead for much of the second period, but a few mistakes caused them to lose their final lead of the game.

Tampa Bay takes advantage of Washington’s mistakes

Steve Downie continues his metamorphosis from a player who only delivered little but dirty hits to a poor man’s Corey Perry in Tampa Bay. He’s still an agitating force, but you must respect his offensive ability. Downie tied the game up at 2-2 and his one-goal, one-assist Game 1 makes him the team’s leading postseason scorer with nine points.

Chimera took an ill-timed penalty late in the second period, opening the door for Stamkos to jam home a rebound with about 30 seconds left in the middle frame. That ended up being the game-winner for Tampa Bay.

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The Lightning defense holds strong

Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 scheme and his team’s overall defense improved as the game went on. The Lightning allowed 14 shots on goal in the first period, nine in the second and only five while protecting that one-goal lead in the third. Perhaps all the discussion of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ putrid first round PP obscured just how efficient the Bolts’ PK was, as they kept the Capitals’ man advantage off the board in all five opportunities.

Dominic Moore capped a great high-effort game by scoring an empty-net goal while out-hustling Alex Ovechkin, who made Moore earn that tally by dropping him shortly thereafter.

Looking forward

Boucher pointed out all the pressure on the Capitals going into Game 1. The Bolts can feel even looser in Game 2 after taking at least one contest on the road. Tampa Bay wasn’t perfect – Brett Clark was particularly bad, turning the puck over on Semin’s goal – but they should be pleased with themselves right now.

The Capitals seemed flat in this game, perhaps due to the dangerous combination of too much time off and too much praise for a gritty first round performance. The Rangers series tested their willingness to fight, but the Lightning will make Washington prove that they can really play lock-down defense.

Every round of the playoffs force teams to prove themselves once more, so we’ll learn a lot about the East’s top seed by how they respond in Game 2.

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.