Quick-striking Lightning on verge of Stanley Cup Final berth

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You can’t spot a team a 3-0 lead and expect to win in the playoffs.

And while the Washington Capitals tried desperately to not fall victim to their own undoing earlier in the game, they simply ran out of time in a 3-2 loss on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning now lead the best-of-7 series 3-2 as the series shifts back to D.C. for Game 6 on Monday. Tampa is 7-0 all-time in Washington in the playoffs and has now won three straight in the series after falling behind 0-2.

In the first period and into the second, the Capitals appeared to be the same old disappointing playoff team — they just delayed their arrival this season for an extra round.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Vasilevskiy, Callahan lead Lightning in Game 5]

This does look like vintage Capitals collapse, no?

Giving their opponents a 3-0 lead in just over 20 minutes, including allowing goals at 19 seconds of the first period (Cedric Paquette) and 33 seconds of the second period (Ryan Callahan), isn’t a winning formula.

Nor is your superstar getting exactly zero shots on goal for the first 58 minutes of the game.

Sure, Alex Ovechkin hit the bar earlier in the third period, and once he did get shooting, he found twine on his second shot of the game with 1:36 left and the net empty, but it was all too late in the end.

Tampa is now a team on the verge of a berth in the Stanley Cup Final and the Capitals on the brink of their yearly disappointing exit from the postseason.

A silver lining: Evgeny Kuznetsov keeps producing. But you’re not winning a conference final riding on the back of one player, as Washington is figuring out.

The urgency displayed in the third period from the Caps would be better used spread out over all three periods.

But perhaps most concerning for the Capitals is how Tampa found their stride 5-on-5.

They didn’t manage to win the puck possession battle (as per usual in this series) but they did have a nearly 3-to-1 edge on high-danger scoring chances for at 15-6.

All three of their goals came at 5-on-5 and they didn’t have to rely on their power play to get their offense rolling.

That will be interesting to watch in Game 6. Giving the Lightning a man-advantage was a death sentence. But if they’re scoring 5-on-5 as well, Washington is going to be in a world of hurt.

This isn’t helping either:

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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

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
• 
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

Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom set for return

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The Washington Capitals best center and one of the best set-up men in the NHL will make his debut in this season’s Eastern Conference Final on Thursday.

After taking the morning skate, getting rotated in on line rushes and working with the top power-play unit, Nicklas Backstrom will make his return to the Capitals lineup after a two-week layoff with a hand injury he sustained in Game 5 of second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Backstrom’s return comes at just the right time as the Capitals look to bounce back from a Game 3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and earn a split at home. The Capitals lead the best-of-7 series 2-1.

It appears Alex Chiasson will make way for Backstrom’s return.

Backstrom’s usage will be front and center in the game.

He didn’t skate with his familiar second line during line rushes and could get someone else to take faceoffs as to not put his hand through any more stress than it needs to, per the Washington Post.

Even without Backstrom in the dot, his return is only slightly less of a boost than it already was.

Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin together again on the power play could spell disaster for the Lightning if they’re undisciplined in the game. And Backstrom’s overall vision and passing skills, even at less than 100 percent, are elite.

MORE:
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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

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.

MORE:
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Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
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

Washington Capitals one win away from ending playoff curse

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Could the curse finally be coming to an end?

The Washington Capitals defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3 on Saturday night to take a 3-2 series lead, putting the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs on the brink of playoff elimination and putting the Capitals on the brink of ending a curse that has plagued them for over two decades.

The Penguins are 9-1 all-time against the Capitals in the playoffs, including winning the past seven encounters dating back to 1995. Most recently, the Capitals have been shown the door in consecutive seasons in the second round by the Penguins, this despite the Capitals owning a superior regular season record.

This time, the Capitals might actually prove their worth.

The Capitals were resilient in Game 5. After Jamie Oleksiak gave the Penguins an early lead in the first period, the Capitals rallied late in the frame, scoring twice in 33 seconds.

The Caps found themselves in penalty trouble in the second period and got behind 3-2 after Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist converted on two of those man-advantages, but would rattle off four straight in the third period (including two empty-net goals) to take the series lead back to Pittsburgh for Game 6 on Monday.

Jakub Vrana, who got a bump to Washington’s top line, didn’t disappoint, scoring the game-winner on a nice rush from Alex Ovechkin. Vrana also provided the assist that saw Evgeny Kuznetsov fire home the game-tying goal earlier in the period and added another helper in the first.

And don’t sleep on Holtby’s save just before the game-winning rush. Holtby stopped 36-of-39 to help the Capitals past their arch-playoff-nemesis in this one. Matt Murray allowed 26-on-30 for a less notable outing.

Despite the Capitals being up a game, the pressure is squarely on them to finish this series and put themselves in the Eastern Conference Final.

Team’s that take a 3-2 series lead have a near-80 percent chance of moving on. But the numbers that have swirled around in favor of the Capitals have never meant much in this matchup.

Pittsburgh has all the experience in the world to still win this in seven, so Washington has to manage their minds more than anything starting on Monday evening.


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