For the second time in three Capitals playoffs rounds, the road team in the series has won each of the first three games. This time it’s Washington that’s sad after Game 3.
The Capitals already knew their dominant weekend in Tampa Bay, which put them up 2-0 in this series on a 10-4 goal differential, didn’t mean anything on its own. They lost the first two games of their first-round series against the Blue Jackets on home ice, then won four in a row. They lost Game 1 at home to the Penguins, then won four of five. They’ve known all along that what they did to others could easily be done to them.
Tampa Bay’s 4-2 win in D.C. in Tuesday’s Game 3 still felt like a jolt of a reality check. The Lightning blitzed the Capitals back after two ugly games, and they turned a long-shot comeback bid into something much more plausible. Teams in the Lightning’s position after two games win their series 19 percent of the time, but teams in their position now go on to win 42 percent of the time. The highly unlikely is now the moderately unlikely.
The Capitals didn’t play terribly, but they made too many mistakes.
The run of play at five-on-five was rather even. The Capitals actually wound up with decent advantages in possession numbers like shot attempts and scoring chances, though that only happened because the Lightning backed off considerably after going up 4-1.
Washington lost the game by doing what you can’t do against the Lightning. For one thing, they took penalties, which doesn’t fly against a power-play unit that ranked third in the league in the regular season and has stayed in that spot in the playoffs. The Lightning are clicking at almost 30 percent on the man advantage this spring, and the Capitals went ahead and gave them five chances in Game 3. Two of them ended in goals.
The Lightning have a deeper collection of elite scoring talent than anyone else, especially now that Steven Stamkos is looking more like himself after some medical issues. They have one of the sport’s best power-play quarterbacks in Victor Hedman. When they get clean puck possession and get set up, they can be devastating. Nikita Kucherov posted up in the right faceoff circle is almost as scary as Alex Ovechkin biding time in the left:
Ovechkin’s the best power-play finisher of this era and still the best in the world at scoring with the man advantage. He’s scored 53 PPGs in the last three regular seasons, 13 more than anyone else. Kucherov’s seventh with 34 and still pretty great at it.
Stamkos is 10th in the league with 32 in the same span, and his power-play goal on Tuesday was a mirror image of Kucherov’s, just coming on the other side of the ice:
The Capitals’ errors weren’t just in taking penalties.
The Lightning’s last goal was effectively a long-distance tap-in by Hedman, who had nobody near him as he streaked toward the net. He was so open because the Capitals had one guy changing lines and a bunch of players below their faceoff dots, leaving no wingers to go out and challenge Hedman. Poor Braden Holtby had no chance at all.
These are correctable things. The Capitals looked slower and more tentative in Game 3 than the previous two. They can take fewer penalties just by moving their feet more quickly. They can iron out bumpy line changes and not give the Lightning de-facto power plays even when they haven’t earned them, snuffing out gimmes like Hedman’s goal.
One thing that will be trickier for the Caps is if Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy finds his form. The Vezina Trophy nominee ranged from mediocre to lousy in the first two games, but he stopped 36 of 38 pucks on him on Tuesday. A lot of those were high-quality looks, with the Caps spending a lot of time firing from the slot.
The hardest thing to tell a Capitals fan is not to worry too much, because until this spring, they’ve known almost nothing but playoff sadness.
Their team has no guarantees, of course. This series is now competitive.
But the Capitals should feel good going into Game 4 anyway. Sweeping the openers in Tampa meant the Capitals only needed one of the next two to put a firm grip on this series. That opportunity is still right in front of them.