Lightning take a shocking 3-0 series lead; Who’s to blame in Washington?

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The Tampa Bay Lightning might just be the hottest team in hockey right now. They won their sixth consecutive playoff game thanks to another strong third period performance, leaving the favored Washington Capitals on the brink of elimination.

Tampa Bay 4, Washington 3; Lightning lead series 3-0.

Expect plenty of “Lightning strikes twice/thrice” type puns from this one, as the game turned on a dime in the final frame. The Capitals managed to take a 3-2 lead into the third period, but the Bolts scored two goals just 15 seconds apart to win Game 3.

It’s natural to fixate on the Capitals blame game, but let’s give Tampa Bay their much-deserved credit first. Sean Bergenheim continued his unexpected hot streak by scoring the game’s first goal. Alex Ovechkin should not be a scapegoat in Washington, as the spirited Russian set up Mike Knuble’s 1-1 goal and also scored a goal. John Carlson made it 2-1 while Vincent Lecavalier is also red-hot lately, as he banged in a rebound to make it 2-2. Ovechkin pounced on a loose puck to give the Caps a 3-2 lead on the power play.

Tampa scores two goals in a stunning 15-second span

For yet another game, Ovechkin’s big goal wouldn’t be enough for a Capitals win. Steven Stamkos capitalized on a bad Eric Fehr turnover to fire an absolute laser to make it 3-3.

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Things went from troubling to downright heart-breaking when the Lightning took a lead thanks to Ryan Malone crashing the net. The puck went off of his skate, but it was ruled a good goal. That would ultimately be the game-winner in this contest.

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It might be easy to blame Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth and it’s true that he allowed a goal or two that he would like to have back. Still, the tough-to-rattle goalie made some huge saves to keep Washington in the game. Neuvirth stopped a Bergenheim shorthanded chance and nullified a horrific Nicklas Backstrom turnover to keep the deficit at 4-3, but the Capitals couldn’t pierce the Lightning defense again.

The Capitals three biggest scapegoats

Naturally, the next question is: who or what should get the blame? Here are my three potential choices.

1. Horrible third periods: If there’s one signature thread to the first three games of this series, it’s that the Lightning finished games stronger. They out-shot the Capitals 15-5 in Game 3’s final frame, winning that period 2-0. Washington carried much of the play in Game 2, but Tampa Bay turned it around in the third with a 11-5 shot deficit (both teams scored one goal in that third period). The Lightning didn’t out-shoot the Caps in Game 1’s third, but they limited Washington to a 5-4 shot advantage as they sat on their lead and also scored an empty-netter.

So, overall, the Bolts out-scored the Capitals 4-1 (counting an empty-netter) and doubled their shots (30-15) in three third periods.

2. Bruce Boudreau: Personally, I think the Capitals might make a mistake if they get rid of Bellicose Bruce. Still, in this media congested age, it’s easy to lose patience after a few disappointments. While I’m easier on him than most, it’s tough to deny that Guy Boucher is coming out on top. Here’s what Keith Jones and Mike Keenan said about Boudreau in the first intermission.

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3. Nicklas Backstrom:
For years, Backstrom was the one Capitals star who jived with casual and hardcore hockey fans alike. The sweet-passing Swede has zero goals and two assists in eight playoff games, which is far worse than any supposed  Alexander Semin and Ovechkin stink-bombs from past years. Maybe he’s playing through an injury, but the Caps simply need more from their less-renowned star.

Final conclusions

Ultimately, the Capitals hope to be the fourth team in NHL history to come back from a 3-0 deficit. They’ll need to shake off tonight’s loss quickly because the two teams will meet again tomorrow night.

The Lightning simply need to continue their trend of timely scoring, sufficient defense and strong goaltending. Tampa Bay’s big three forwards Martin St. Louis, Lecavalier and Stamkos are coming up huge and support players like Dominic Moore and Bergenheim are playing over their heads. It wasn’t Roloson’s best game, but maybe that’s because he set the bar so high.

Boucher said he was happy Game 2 didn’t go too deep into overtime after his team slugged it out in a seven game series in the first round, so an early second round sweep would do wonders if the squad is truly tired.

A big night for the rookies and a big win for the Maple Leafs

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William Nylander helped get Toronto started on Thursday, extending his point streak to 10 games — a new Maple Leafs franchise record for a rookie.

Connor Brown finished it with his 17th goal of the season, securing a 4-2 win for the Maple Leafs over the New Jersey Devils.

Toronto has won three in a row and moves three points clear of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division, with a game in hand, which further helps the Maple Leafs’ playoff chances with nine games remaining on their schedule.

Just another big night for Toronto’s impressive crop of rookies.

Auston Matthews had a pair of assists.

— Nylander had a goal and an assist. He set one and tied another franchise rookie record on Thursday.

Mitch Marner had an assist, giving him 40 helpers this season, which ties the franchise rookie record set in 1943-44.

“They’re good players,” said coach Mike Babcock, per the Toronto Star. “I didn’t know Marner would make the team. I knew Matthews and Nylander were good players. I knew Brown and (Zach) Hyman were relentless. I had no idea (Nikita) Zaitsev was as close to how good he is.

“We have lots of good players.”

In May of 2015, Babcock predicted at his introductory press conference that the Maple Leafs would, during their massive rebuild, endure “pain.” This was, he said, to be a long process — a “massive, massive challenge.”

Approaching the two-year anniversary of that event — after all the losing that franchise and its fan base has gone through, which obviously helped them with the Matthews lottery last year — the Maple Leafs are poised to make the playoffs with a nucleus of young players that present even more promise for the future.

“We just want to get in to the playoffs, and give ourselves a chance,” continued Babcock. “We’re playing well, and finding a way to win games. That’s what we have to continue to do.”

Capitals defeat Blue Jackets in clash of Metropolitan Division powers

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WASHINGTON (AP) T.J. Oshie scored the shootout winner as the Washington Capitals overcame a stellar performance from Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 Thursday night.

Despite 44 saves from Bobrovsky, the Capitals reached 104 points and extended their lead atop the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings. Oshie engendered memories of his Sochi Olympic shootout performance by again beating Bobrovsky, the goalie he scored on four times in six chances that day.

Dmitry Orlov finally cracked Bobrovsky early in the third period on Washington’s 35th shot of the game. Orlov’s goal tied the score after Seth Jones beat Braden Holtby on a wild scramble early in the third for his first goal since Feb. 7.

Holtby had 29 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout to pick up his 38th victory of the season, one shy of Bobrovsky for the league lead.

A showdown between two of the top three teams in the league jockeying for position atop the Metropolitan Division lacked a playoff feel. But the matchup of two likely Vezina Trophy finalists lived up to that billing as Bobrovsky and Holtby went back and forth with big saves.

Bobrovsky entered the night first in wins, goals-against average and save percentage with Holtby second, second and third in those categories. The 2013 Vezina winner could also be an MVP contender this season given his value to Columbus’ third playoff berth in franchise history.

“When he’s in his game it’s very hard to score on him,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who had eight shots stopped by one of his Russian national teammates. “He likes the big moments, he likes pressure. His worth ethic is unbelievable. … In my opinion he’s one of the best goalies in the league right now.”

Methot ‘out for weeks’ after suffering a shattered finger from Crosby clash

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The Ottawa Senators lost defenseman Marc Methot for the bulk of Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it seems he’ll be out for quite a while longer, too.

Methot was injured on a Sidney Crosby slash across the hand in the first period. He didn’t return to the game and there was no penalty called on the Penguins captain.

Footage showed the gruesome aftermath of the slash — Methot’s finger on his left hand bloodied and injured as he skated back to the bench.

“His finger is shattered and he’s out for weeks,” said Senators head coach Guy Boucher, per the Ottawa Sun.

Methot immediately confronted Crosby after the slash, which occurred as the Sens blue liner went to dump the puck into the Pittsburgh zone late in the first period.

The Senators got revenge, scoring a 2-1 shootout victory to move within a point of Montreal for the Atlantic Division lead. Crosby was also denied in the shootout.

NHL to make ‘special announcement’ in China next week

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The National Hockey League has announced it will make a “special announcement” at the LeSports Center in Beijing, China next Thursday.

In January, the league’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly made it clear the NHL has interest in playing games in China — likely starting out with pre-season games before potentially adding in some regular season contests in the future, as well.

Just after the league made its announcement on Thursday, the L.A. Kings tweeted out that they will participate in next week’s event, along with the Vancouver Canucks.

In January, hockey insider Darren Dreger reported that the Canucks and Kings were likely to play NHL pre-season games in China this upcoming September.

Last July, members of the Boston Bruins visited China, specifically Beijing and Shanghai, to host hockey clinics in those cities.

Beijing will also host the 2022 Winter Olympics.