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:
• 
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:
• 
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

Qatar opens coffers to help Capitals fans get home (Update)

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Here’s a strange story.

A country not located on the continent of North America is apparently putting up $100,000 to keep the trains running in Washington for an extra hour on Thursday night for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final between the Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning.

With pockets bursting with money, Qatar, a small nation in the Middle East, is doing Capitals fans quite the service by flipping the bill to keep their metro system running late.

Games in Washington are starting at 8 p.m. local time., both on Tuesday night for Game 3 and also for Game 4.

Metro stays open until 11:30 p.m. local time on weeknights, meaning if the game goes into overtime, taking the train ceases to be an option.

At least it did.

Per the Washington Post:

D.C. Council member Jack Evans, also chair of the Metro board, said last week that he had been in discussions with a couple of companies that were considering paying the $100,000 fee to keep Metro open an additional hour, and Exelon and Pepco stepped up for Tuesday night.

On Tuesday, Evans told The Washington Post that the tiny, wealthy nation of Qatar has agreed to pay the $100,000 fee to keep Metro open until 12:30 a.m. on Thursday, when the Capitals host Game 4. That game also is set for an 8 p.m. start.

The Post said Qatar has previously invested in Washington’s city center.

Metro, which provides transportation service to Washington’s metropolitan area, has extended its hours on Tuesday as well after Exelon and Pepco wrote the cheque to keep the rails running, the Post reported.

UPDATE:

According to NBC Washington, the deal is off:

A Metro source says no money has been exchanged, and D.C. Councilmember and Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans says the deal “seems to have come undone.”

The two sides are still trying to work out a deal, but Evans said he wouldn’t count on it happening.

Evans said Qatari officials attempted to change some language in the standard contract that Metro has about paying to keep the system open late.

MORE:
• 
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’ Tom Wilson avoids suspension for hit on Brian Dumoulin

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Tom Wilson will not be punished for his hit on Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin during the Washington Capitals’ 4-1 victory in Game 2.

The hit occurred in the second period when Dumoulin got sandwiched between Wilson and Alex Ovechkin. After being tended to on the ice, Dumoulin left the game and did not return. Wilson was not penalized.

After reviewing the hit, the NHL Department of Player Safety determined that the play did not warrant a fine or suspension.

Here is their reasoning via Greg Wyshynski of ESPN.com:

“[T]he NHL Department of Player Safety determined that Wilson’s contact with Dumoulin was not considered an illegal check to the head. It felt that contact with the head was unavoidable on the play, and Dumoulin bracing himself for the Ovechkin hit materially changed the position of his head prior to Wilson making contact with him.”

The NHL’s Rule 48 states that when determining whether a check to the head is illegal, the body position of the player being hit is taken into consideration, especially if that player moves their body or head “immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit in a way that significantly contributed to the head contact.” The DoPS also felt that Wilson’s positioning behind Dumoulin would not have allowed him to target the head.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

“I’m at no point trying to target the head at all,” Wilson said afterward via the Washington Post. “Unfortunately there’s a collision there. You know what, I’ve watched it briefly, and I don’t realize what I can really do any different. At the last second, I see [Ovechkin] coming in and you can see me bracing, as well, and I end up getting kind of taken out as well.”

As you might imagine, the Penguins, who were already playing without Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin because of injury, were not happy with the play.

“Yeah I saw it, it looked like it was a high hit, but they didn’t see it that way,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan told NBC’s Pierre McGuire during the game.

“We all know who he is and what he does on the ice, so I don’t really have a comment,” said Penguins defenseman Kris Letang via the Tribune-Review. “We expect that from him.”

Dumoulin, who went through concussion protocol, participated in practice on Monday and will be a game-time decision for Game 3 (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), according to Sullivan.

“I knew Wilson was coming from behind. I saw Ovi come and braced for Ovechkin,” Dumoulin said. “I wasn’t ready for Wilson at all. I got caught in that.”

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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.

Backstrom provides OT winner as Capitals take 3-2 series lead

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The Washington Capitals are on the verge of the second round.

Yes, the Capitals, who began the series with back-to-back losses in Game 1 and 2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, are now on the brink of eliminating Ohio’s team after Nicklas Backstrom‘s deft deflection in overtime gave the Capitals their third straight win and a 3-2 series lead.

It was the fourth time in the series both clubs played to a tie in regulation. After Columbus won the first two in OT, Washington replied with a win in double-overtime in Game 3 before Backstrom ended Game 5 at the 11:53 mark of the first frame of free hockey.

Backstrom scored his first goal of the series to open the scoring for the Caps and assisted for the sixth time in the series on the go-ahead goal in the second period before Oliver Bjorkstrand tied it in third.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Braden Holtby had to be sharp, especially in the third period as, inexplicably, the Caps were outshot 16-1. At home. Holtby made 40 saves when it was all said and done.

Two-hundred feet away, Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task, making some silly stops including a big one on Alex Ovechkin earlier in overtime and a bigger one in regulation time off the same man’s stick.

Game 6 of this series is slated for Monday in Columbus, with a start time still to be determined.

In his post-game comments, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said, twice, that his team will be back in the capital for Game 7.

The promise has been made.


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