TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning stormed back in the Eastern Conference final against the Washington Capitals, thanks in part to a thriving power play and suddenly reliable penalty-killing unit.
To regain control of the best-of-seven matchup that continues Saturday night, the Caps need a lift from their special teams, too.
”The series is tied 2-2,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. ”It doesn’t matter how you got there.”
Tampa Bay, which has taken two straight in a series in which the home team has yet to win, believes it hasn’t played its best.
Washington was dominant in winning twice on the road, then sputtered – particularly on the Alex Ovechkin-led power play – while dropping the next two games at home.
”I think we look at it realistically,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. ”I mean, I said to everybody in September, even yesterday, and they’re saying the same thing: Sign me up. Best-of-three, got a chance to maybe go to the Stanley Cup Final, sign me up.
”I don’t think anybody thought the series would go four straight or anything like that. There’s two really high-quality teams that are going to go nose-to-nose,” Trotz added. ”There’s twists and turns in the road sometimes. … It’s just another layer of adversity. This group has taken on any adversity that has been thrown its way all year.”
Since yielding three power-play goals in the first two games of the series, two of them in the closing seconds of a period, the Lightning have gone 7-for-7 killing penalties over the past two games.
Not bad for a team that had one of the most potent power plays (third, 23.9 percent) in the NHL during the regular season, while also ranking among the league’s worst at killing penalties (28th, 76.1 percent).
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos has a power-play goal in each of the first four games of the conference final.
Six of his seven goals this postseason have come in man-advantage situations, including his franchise-best 11th career playoff power-play goal (snapping a tie with Martin St. Louis) in Game 4 on Thursday night.
”Desperation. Realizing how important it is, especially in this series against the group that they have,” Stamkos said of the improved play on the penalty kill.
”It starts with the goaltending, and then it starts with guys willing to sacrifice. I think it’s been a challenge,” Stamkos added. ”When the power play is going well like we are, the PK wants to step up and be just as good, and vice versa when it’s the other way. … It’s been a lot of fun to watch.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 36 of 38 shots in Game 4. He has bounced back nicely since allowing 10 goals over five periods in the first two games.
Center Nicklas Backstrom, who returned to Washington’s lineup Thursday night after missing four games with a hand injury, thinks the Capitals need to create more traffic in front of the Lightning goaltender.
”He’s actually too good of a goalie if you’re going to shoot from outside with no traffic, so maybe we can get some more traffic and find these rebounds like we did the first couple of games,” Backstrom said.
”We have pretty good chances. We just don’t execute,” Ovechkin said after the Washington power play was shut out for the second straight game. ”We tried. … We had so (many) shots, and we just didn’t score one more goal.”
But just as Tampa Bay embraced the challenge of battling its way back into the series after losing Games 1 and 2, the Capitals are excited about the opportunity ahead, beginning Saturday night.
Not only is Washington is 7-1 on the road this postseason, but the Caps went on eliminate Columbus in the first round and Pittsburgh in the conference semifinal in six games after those series were each tied at 2.
”I think we’ve played three out of the four games pretty well,” Trotz said. ”I’m not disappointed at all.”
The Lightning are confident, too.
”Clearly home-ice advantage has been a disadvantage in this series,” Cooper said. ”Now, in saying that, I’d rather have Game 5 at home. I believe we’ll be a different team here than we showed up in Game 1 and 2.”
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