WASHINGTON — With just over eight minutes left in regulation, the Washington Capitals survived the most lethal power play in the postseason.
The home crowd roared in appreciation of their penalty kill. For a moment, they exhaled.
All the Tampa Bay Lightning needed to tie up the Eastern Conference finals was that brief moment of satisfaction from their opponents.
Mikhail Sergachev held the puck in the zone, sent it to Ondrej Palat, who backhanded it to Alex Killorn in the middle of three Capitals defenders, who slid it past goalie Braden Holtby. It was six seconds after the penalty kill. It was six seconds that turned a golden chance for the Capitals in Game 4 on Thursday night to take control of this series into a wasted one, as the Lightning evened the conference final at 2-2 with a 4-2 win over Washington at Capital One Arena on Thursday night.
“I can call it what it is. It’s a missed opportunity. If we get one at home, it’s a different series,” said forward Tom Wilson, after a game that saw the Capitals tilt the ice with 65 shot attempts to 45 for the Lightning.
“You gotta stay positive,” said Wilson. “It could be more frustrating if it was the other way around: That they outplayed us and we got no looks and blah blah blah. We’re confident in our game. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and all those clichés. We were pretty happy with our game, outside of a couple of bounces.”
His coach believes the Capitals will fight on as well.
“We’ll battle through it. This group has been resilient as hell all year. Nothing’s come easy for this team. Everybody knows that,” said Barry Trotz.
Taking their cue from the coach, the Capitals’ dressing room was an optimistic place after Game 4, despite a parade of frustrating squandered chances. They put 38 shots on Lightning goalie Andre Vasilevskiy, and got two pucks by him. They had three straight power plays during a 6 minute and 36 minute stretch in the first period, with nothing to show for it.
That’s partially because the Lightning made some adjustments on their penalty kill in an effort to neutralize Alex Ovechkin.
“Tonight they played a little bit different, gave [Ovechkin] a lot of looks. He got some really shots off and they made a few nice blocks,” said defenseman John Carlson. “I think maybe tonight we seemed to be getting a lot of recovery plays early in power plays with draws and stuff, but kind of a little too much one and done after that. We’d get a chance and they ice, so that was one of main reasons.”
They failed to take advantage of Lightning penalty killers running on fumes.
“We needed the period to end there. All the penalty we were doing, our guys were gassed. All the mental stress, the same guys are on the ice the whole time,” said Tampa coach Jon Cooper. “I think that affected their second [period].”
There was also that second period power play when Tyler Johnson was missing a stick that they couldn’t convert on. Washington’s power play is now 1-for-10 in the last three games.
The Capitals failed to take advantage of a Lightning team on the ropes, one that didn’t generate a shot from 9:16 of the first period to 10:11 of the second period.
They failed to take advantage of 2:34 of 6-on-5 hockey at the end of the game, where Washington got looks but couldn’t tie the score. When Anthony Cirelli scored into their empty net with two seconds remaining, Ovechkin took a two-handed whack at the cross bar and shattered his stick. But after clear frustration on the ice, Ovechkin sounded a different tone in the dressing room.
“It’s OK. It sucks we lost two in a row, but we’re going to bounce back and play hard in Game 5,” he said. “Of course, it’s a missed opportunity. It is what it is. Nothing we can do. We’re not going to look back. We’re just going to look forward. This group of guys has been in different situations all year and we fight through it. So it’s a huge test. We’re still going to have fun, we’re still going to enjoy it and we’ll see what happens.”
Game 5 is Saturday night in Tampa, where the Capitals dominated the first two games of the series, scoring 10 goals against Vasilevskiy, who all but stole Game 4 for the Lightning on the road.
“He didn’t play great in the first two. He played well in the second two,” said Wilson. “It’s our job to make him look like the goalie from the first two games. We’ll make it hard on him.”