TAMPA, Fla. — After reaching the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 20 years, after eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins, their postseason tormentors, the Washington Capitals‘ celebration seemed like it was never going to end.
“I think our players understood that getting past Pittsburgh, which has been a real source of pain in the Washington, D.C., area for the last number of years, and especially for that core group, was really important,” coach Barry Trotz said.
But the party had to end. The Tampa Bay Lightning were rested, with five days off, and ready to take advantage of a Capitals team that spent a lot of emotional energy in its semifinal catharsis. But instead of resting on the accomplishment and acting like “second-round champions,” the Capitals played like a team with designs on the Stanley Cup in a 4-2 trouncing of Tampa in Game 1 of the East finals on Friday night.
“I think that was one thing we wanted to focus on, was not to have a letdown,” said goalie Braden Holtby, who made 19 saves. “Obviously, there was a lot of emotions through our locker room after that series win. You enjoy it for a couple days. But then refocus. Put it out of our minds. We just went right back to work, and I think the guys responded well tonight.”
That’s an understatement.
The Capitals played perhaps their best defensive game of the playoffs. Tampa had 10 shots on goal through two periods, which was the fewest through the first 40 minutes in any game this season, including the playoffs.
“For the most part, that’s the best we played through the neutral zone,” said defenseman John Carlson. “I didn’t think we were going to have a hangover. I think this whole playoffs we went out there with an attack mentality. It’s paid dividends for us. And it did tonight.”
In attacking the game, the Capitals demoralized the Lightning. That was never more evident than at the end of the first period, when Tampa appeared to have tied the game at 1-1 on a Nikita Kucherov goal, but the goal was waved off because the Lightning had six skaters on the ice.
“We were six men by a mile, so I don’t think anyone was too fired up with the goal,” said Lightning forward Steven Stamkos. “But anytime you give up a goal at the end of the period, it gives momentum to the other team.”
Alex Ovechkin scored 5.3 seconds into the ensuing power play to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead, in what was the turning point of the game.
“It’s tough, especially when there is not much time left in the period. You want to get a block there, you want to stop them from scoring. It was one of those things where, throughout the game, I think they outplayed us in all periods,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “The crowd was kind of stunned a little bit.
“We used that to our advantage in the second,” said Carlson, as the Capitals scored twice in the opening 6:42 of the second period to take a commanding 4-0 lead. In winning Game 1, the Capitals did what Holtby called “trying to control the controllables.”
They couldn’t control the injury that deprived them of star center Nicklas Backstrom for a second straight game. They couldn’t control starting this series on the road, nor the rest the Lightning had before Game 1.
What they could control: their emotions; their defensive structure, which frustrated the Lightning; their power play, which generated two goals on four chances. And even when the Lightning crept back into the game with two third-period goals, the Capitals didn’t allow them to climb all the way back.
“We tried to create a momentum on our side and not give them life,” Ovechkin said. “Everybody was all in, and everybody was paying the price.”
In the end, it wasn’t the Capitals coasting into Game 1 on the good vibes of the previous round, not exhibiting the levels of competitive ferocity to win this playoff game.
It was their hosts.
“We’re in the conference final. We just didn’t treat it that way. I’m not trying to take anything from Washington. They earned their breaks. But we didn’t do anything to earn our breaks,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “You can play the perfect game and still not win, but at least you give your chance to win. When you do this, you give yourself zero chance to win.”
This happened to Tampa before, losing 6-2 to the Boston Bruins at home in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals before roaring back to win the series in five games. But that loss was different. That loss had an effort Cooper and his players could be satisfied with. Not so against the Capitals.
“Unlike Game 1 against Boston, when we did a lot of good things, I didn’t think that was the case tonight at all,” he said. “They outplayed us. They outchanced us. They outscored us. They out-everythinged us. And this is the result you get.”