Lightning survive barrage to even series with Capitals

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The Eastern Conference Final is now a best-of-3 series after the Tampa Bay Lightning survived a third-period onslaught by the Washington Capitals to even things at 2-2 with a 4-2 win on Thursday night.

The Capitals have been laying siege on Andrei Vasilevskiy and Co. over the past two games, but after jumping out to a 2-0 series lead on the road in Tampa, all of their best efforts have been for naught as the Lightning found a way to gain a lead and then manage to hold onto it for dear life.

The Caps have simply been the better team 5-on-5, but the Lightning picked a good night to figure out how to put pucks in the net in that situation.

Coming into the game, the Lightning’s even strength play produced only three goals. Nearly all of their damage came with the man-advantage and it didn’t help them as they fell in a 0-2 rut and through three games they had been outscored 8-3 at 5-on-5.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Killorn’s goal, Vasilevskiy’s saves lead Lightning in Game 4]

Tampa was a good even strength team during the regular season and their overall CF% has been quite good in the playoffs so far, but they’ve taken a step back in that department in this series.

Brayden Point‘s game-tying goal in the first period and Alex Killorn‘s game-winner in the third were just what the doctor ordered, then.

Killorn’s tally may have been at 5-on-5, but the Caps had just barelykilled off a penalty when the Lightning forward scored.

The goal broke the deadlock after Evgeny Kuzenetsov provided the equalizer in the second frame thanks to some dirty backhand sauce from Alex Ovechkin, who hasn’t scored in either of the losses.

An empty-net goal later and the Lightning fly back home having stolen two from under the Caps’ noses.

Given the volume of shots being thrown Vasilevskiy’s way during Washington’s two home games, the Capitals are probably a little unlucky at the moment.

Vasilevskiy has stopped 36 shots in each of the past two games, both 4-2 wins for the Lightning.

Nicklas Backstrom returned after missing the first three games of the series (and four total) with a hand injury. He played 18:51 and was a minus-one with four shots on goal. Not the return the Capitals would have hoped for from one of the league’s premier set-up men.

It’s going to be a long 48 hours in Washington, a lot of time for both players and fans to stew over what’s happened in this series. The Caps have never won a series when they won the first two games on the road.

They’ve managed to fend off one curse this postseason. It appears a second one awaits now.

The race to two begins on Saturday night in Game 5 (7:15 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE:
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Conference Finals schedule, TV info
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NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT’s Three Stars: Killorn’s goal, Vasilevskiy’s saves lead Lightning in Game 4

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1st Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning netminder was outstanding during Tampa’s 4-2 Game 4 victory over the Washington Capitals. In helping even the series 2-2, he made 36 saves for the second straight game. The Capitals had a number of Grade A opportunities, but Vasilevskiy was there to keep them at bay.

2nd Star: Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning

With the score tied 2-2 midway through the third period, Killorn finished off a nice Ondrej Palat pass by going backhand, five-hole to beat Braden Holtby and give the Lightning the lead for good. Killorn, who last scored in Game 3 of the first round against the New Jersey Devils, snapped his 10-game goal drought.

3rd Star: Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning

In the span of three minutes in the first period, Point played a huge role in flipping a 1-0 Capitals into a 2-1 Lightning advantage. He first put home his seventh of the playoffs and then minutes later fed Steven Stamkos for a power play goal, the Tampa captain’s seventh of the postseason as well.

[Lightning survive barrage to even series with Capitals 2-2]

Highlight of the Night: The passing on the Stamkos power play goal — his fourth straight game with an extra man tally — was gorgeous:

Factoid of the Night:

Friday’s schedule: Winnipeg Jets at Vegas Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Golden Knights lead series 2-1)

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Conn Smythe Power Rankings: Scheifele, Marchessault make their case

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The Conference Finals have reached the halfway point as we continue to inch our way to a Stanley Cup Final that will be … well … let’s just say a very unexpected matchup no matter who ends up playing in it.

The four teams remaining would all provide a fascinating story in their own right and have had some incredible individual performances that have helped drive them to this point. So let’s focus on those once again and check back in with our Conn Smythe Trophy power rankings.

The top of the list still has Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but he is starting to get a bit of a challenge from one of his opponents in the Western Conference Final. As well as one of his teammates.

To the list!

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. He was in the top spot when looked at this more than a week and literally nothing has happened to change that. If anything, he has only strengthened his case as he now has the Golden Knights just two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. No matter how many times you think that sentence it never stops being outrageous. Game 3 of the Western Conference Final, specifically his two acrobatic saves on Mark Scheifele in the third period, are his signature moment so far this postseason. What does it do to his legacy if he leads a first-year expansion team to a Stanley Cup Final appearance (or wins it?!) and wins the Conn Smythe Trophy along the way? Big things, obviously.

2. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets. He has already set the NHL record for most road goals in a single postseason with 11 of them. Overall, he has a league-best 14 goals … in only 15 games! Keep in mind that no player has scored more than 14 goals in a single playoff run since Sidney Crosby scored 15 for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09. Before him you have to go all the way back to Joe Sakic (18) in 1995-96. It seems like he is a guarantee for two points every single night.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. We had Ovechkin in the second spot in our last update and his drop isn’t at all a reflection on the way he has played — he has been consistently incredible. It is just that there are simply two players that, at this point, are just a little bit better. In all honestly pretty much any of the players in the top-three (Fleury, Scheifele, Ovechkin) could easily be in the top spot without much of an argument.

4. Jon Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas’ top line has been a nightmare for teams all year and Marchessault has been at the center of a lot of it. He is also proving that his 30-goal season a year ago with the Florida Panthers was not a fluke. He is now up to 17 points in 13 games this postseason and has at least two points in six of his past nine games. How did the Florida Panthers allow this to happen?

5. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. He had a three-game stretch at the start of the Boston series where he did not record a point. Outside of that he has found his way onto the scoresheet in every playoff game the Lightning have played and enters Game 4 on Thursday night riding a four-game point streak. He has been the engine driving the Lightning all year.

6. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. Holtby has been an incredible playoff goalie throughout his entire career and is finally getting the goal support to make people notice it. Still one of the most mind-blowing Holtby stats is that he has been on the losing end of 14 games in his playoff career where he has allowed two goals or less. He has lost four games where he has allowed only one goal! He has consistently produced for the Capitals. He has deserved better. This year he is getting better and is a big reason why the team is so close to finally reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

7. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets. From strictly an entertainment perspective he might be at the top of the list. Point-per-game player on defense, playing 26 minutes a night, plays a devastatingly physical game, has players bouncing off of him like he is a brick wall when they try to hit him, and he can drag multiple players around the ice by himself like they are nothing.

8. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. He is playing 19 minutes per night (tops among all Lightning forwards) and has more even-strength points than any other player on the team. In just his second year in the NHL he has quickly become a key part of this core. Perhaps the lesson for the rest of the NHL here should be to not be afraid to take the undersized player if he proves he can put the puck in the net. The Lightning haven’t been afraid to do it and have built a team that has been in the NHL’s final four in three of the past four years.

MORE:
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Conference Finals schedule, TV info
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Lightning ride three-goal second period in 4-2 win

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The list of things the Tampa Bay Lightning needed to do to avoid falling behind 0-3 in the Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals was getting long.

As PHT’s James O’Brien pointed out on Tuesday, improved performances from Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman in terms of puck possession would’ve been a start.

Nikita Kucherov finding the back of the net for the first time in the series would also help.

And perhaps most importantly, getting an outing from Andrei Vasilevskiy that was reminiscent of those that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist this year.

Stamkos stepped up his game with a 60% CF%, Vasilevskiy was solid, and the Lightning checked enough of the boxes elsewhere to get themselves back into the series, defeating the Capitals 4-2 in Game 3.

Hedman’s 5-on-5 game still needs some work, but No. 77 scored his first goal of the playoffs and added two helpers so no one will be complaining too much.

Kucherov got his first of the series, scoring on a one-timer on the power play.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Lightning power play stays hot in Game 3 win]

And Vasilevskiy looked much less fatigued than he did in the first two games, where he allowed 10 goals in five periods of play and never eclipsed a .850 save percentage.

Vasilevskiy had never lost three straight playoff games, and he didn’t start a new trend on Tuesday, steering aside 35-of-37 shots he faced.

He had to be particularly good late in the game after Evgeny Kuznetsov (no surprise) found paydirt from a dirty angle for his sixth point in the series with Washington’s net empty.

Tampa benefited from a three-goal outburst in the second period. Kucherov netted on the power play, Hedman found a fairly wide-open net to shoot at, and Brayden Point provided a late marker to give the Bolts a 4-1 edge through 40 minutes.

Washington didn’t have much of the magic they found in abundance in Tampa, although their possession numbers showed they controlled the majority of the shot share.

One now has to wonder how the Caps will manage Backstrom’s injury going forward.

There’s an argument that they could have given him the night off on Tuesday to promote further healing with the team holding a healthy 2-0 lead series lead. We’ll see what happens for Game 4 Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Capitals certainly aren’t panicking at 2-1, but they need to be wary of their own ugly history when winning the first two games on the road (they’re 0-2 in a series where they do that). If Backstrom, one of the league’s best set-up men, can go and be effective, he can only help.

A side note: Home-ice advantage is a myth.

The Caps are 7-1 on the road in the playoffs and 3-4 at Capital One Arena. Tampa, meanwhile, improved to 4-1 away from AMALIE Arena.

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Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Stamkos, Hedman must shake off ugly starts for Lightning

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The emergence of players such as Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde make the Tampa Bay Lightning the sort of varied, versatile team that can be downright intimidating. Still, to some extent, the buck stops with your biggest stars.

Unfortunately for the Lightning, even-strength success hasn’t been there for big names Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman through two shockingly stark losses to the Washington Capitals to open the 2018 Eastern Conference Final. They simply need more from marquee talent if they want to get back into this series.

Now, that’s not to say that these players have accomplished nothing.

Steven struggles at evens

Stamkos’ production looks like business as usual on paper, as he’s already generated two goals and one assist; Hedman has an assist in each contest. Things get more troubling when you dig deeper, however. Consider that all five of their points have come on the power play, a notion that anonymous team officials seem all too aware of.

Now, it would be silly to be excessively worried about where a player’s points are coming from. That’s especially true during the postseason, when it’s so precious and difficult to produce.

Their failings aren’t limited to the simpler box score stats of goals and assists. Take a look at the series possession stats at Natural Stat Trick and you’ll see some downright glaring even-strength numbers for Stamkos and Hedman, along with troubling numbers for Tyler Johnson, Anton Stralman, and others.

Those rocky possession stats come even though Hedman and Stamkos have largely avoided matching up with the Capitals’ dangerous combination of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. These struggles stand as testaments to the strong play of Lars Eller and the Matt NiskanenDmitry Orlov pairing, but that’s troubling for the Bolts. Watch, for example, Orlov juking Stamkos in a big way before a Jay Beagle goal from Game 1:

It’s to the point that you wonder if Barry Trotz will try to chase similar matchups now that the Capitals get the last change during home contests in Game 3 and 4. There are all sorts of tough questions bubble under the surface for Tampa Bay. Would things only get worse if Nicklas Backstrom manages to play tonight, or at least sometime during this series? Will Andrei Vasilevskiy bounce back from a difficult start that’s clearly not all his fault?

[Lightning face plenty of questions with Game 3 looming]

Aiming for better execution

Reports indicate that the Lightning aren’t making significant personnel changes, whether that means tweaking line combinations or even going with an 11F/7D alignment. As KISS-stupid-simple as it sounds, they realize that they need to perform at a higher level, though it’s promising to see that they’re clearly pouring over tape after two rattling losses.

As Bryan Burns of the Lightning website reports, Stamkos looks at this as a real test after the Lightning breezed through their first two rounds.

“We’re going to prepare for the toughest game that we’ve played all season,” Stamkos said. “It’s gut check time. Let’s see who we really are. We haven’t really had to deal with that so far in the playoffs. Now we are. We’ll see what type of team we have.”

The East’s top team is facing quiet a challenge against a determined, inspired Metropolitan Division winner in Washington. Pulling this off would put the Lightning in select company in recent history:

While dropping these specific games puts Tampa Bay in a situation with every little room for error, these players are likely aware that, as poorly as they played, it still was just two games. They merely need to look at the other end of the ice to see a Capitals team that fought through virtually the same situation. The Caps went down 2-0 to the Blue Jackets, losing two home games in Washington, only to advance with four wins in a row.

As formidable as Washington is, especially after dispatching the Penguins, it’s also difficult to believe that Hedman, Stamkos, and other key Lightning players don’t have more in them. That said, they don’t exactly have a long time to get things back on track.

The Lightning face off against the Capitals in Washington at 8 p.m. ET tonight. You can watch Game 3 on NBCSN and also stream it here.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.