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Lackluster effort dooms Lightning in Game 1 ECF defeat

Entering Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final, one of the big narratives going in was experience. Most notably, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s overwhelming experience in the third round compared to the inexperience of the majority of the Washington Capitals roster when it comes to making it this far in the postseason.

Following the conclusion of Game 1, one team looked like they had been this far before. And that team was not the Lightning.

Four different Capitals found the back of the net, chasing Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy after two periods in a dominant 4-2 victory over the Bolts at Amalie Arena. As a result, Tampa Bay finds itself in an 0-1 hole in a series for the second consecutive round. However, this Game 1 was different. Whereas the opening game of the second round against Boston saw the Lightning outplay the Bruins only to not get the bounces their way, this opening game was a different animal. The Lightning simply got outplayed and run out of their own building by a Capitals team determined to prove they weren’t resting on their laurels after defeating Pittsburgh in the second round.

“Game 1 against Boston, we did a lot of good things, we out-chanced them, stuff like that,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “I didn’t think that was the case tonight at all. They outplayed us, they out-chanced us, they outscored us, they out-everything’d us, and this is the result we get.”

In the opening 20 minutes, the Lightning team that dominated Boston in four straight was nowhere to be found.

While both teams played at a brisk, fast pace in the opening five minutes of the period, the Lightning were unable to generate many offensive chances. In fact, they didn’t register their first shot on goal until the period was nearly halfway over. The momentum slowly began to shift in Washington’s favor when they kept the Lightning’s top line pinned into their own zone, with Tampa Bay repeatedly failing to clear the zone.

Michal Kempny rewarded the Caps for their effort by scoring his first goal of the playoffs at the 7:28 mark. Alex Ovechkin battled Victor Hedman and Dan Girardi in front of the net, screening Vasilevskiy in the process. Kempny’s shot from the point traveled through that maze of players and into the net, putting Washington up 1-0. The Capitals continued to frustrate the Lightning, out-skating them and out-shooting them. Only a tremendous effort by Vasilevskiy kept this game from getting out of hand early on.

Late in the period, the Lightning received a power play, only to come up empty. As time wound down, a massive momentum shift occurred. Nikita Kucherov collected a pass and sped into the Caps’ zone, beating goalie Braden Holtby with a spectacular goal as he fell to the ice with 7.1 seconds left in the period. The only problem? Tampa Bay had too many men on the ice due to Kucherov jumping out there too soon. As a result, the Caps earned a power play, where they won the ensuing faceoff. The puck went back to the point, where Ovechkin unleashed a bullet that beat Vasilevskiy, giving Washington a 2-0 lead and all the momentum at the intermission.

Cooper refused to blame the botched line change for the goal, instead focusing on what happened on the following faceoff.

“We had six guys on the ice for a long time,” said Cooper. “If you wanna be able to take advantage of somebody, play 6-on-5 for that long and that’s what happens. The issue was we give up one within three seconds off the faceoff. That’s the issue.”

That Ovechkin power play goal turned out to be the catalyst upon which Washington added to their lead.

Just 2:40 into the second period, Jay Beagle put the visitors up 3-0 when a broken play and a bouncing puck off a flubbed shot by Brett Connolly led to Beagle knocking a rebound home for a 3-0 lead. Washington continued to play with speed and efficiency, keeping it simple and taking advantage of Lightning mistakes. Tampa Bay continued to commit errors with the puck, making questionable decisions that led to turnovers and delivering ill-advised passes that sabotaged any sort of momentum.

The Capitals’ power play, operating at a 30.9% success rate in the playoffs entering this series, connected again at the 6:42 mark. An Ovechkin shot led to a couple of rebounds, one of which got deposited into the net by Lars Eller for a 4-0 Caps lead. Halfway through the second period, the Lightning registered a grand total of six shots on goal. After two periods, Tampa Bay mustered only 10 shots to the Capitals’ 25.

Due to his team’s effort through 40 minutes, Cooper made a decision.

He decided to sit Vasilevskiy in favor of Louis Domingue to start the third period. Tampa Bay began to show signs of life over the final 20 minutes, as they cashed in on a power play chance. Nikita Kucherov sent a crisp cross-ice feed to Stamkos, who narrowed the Caps’ lead to 4-1 at 3:45. Over the course of the next several minutes, Tampa Bay mustered more of a respectable effort. However, it was too little, too late by this point. Another power play opportunity halfway through the period saw more quality chances from the Bolts than before. Unfortunately for them, none of those chances narrowed Washington’s lead.

As the clock ticked down, things continued to appear bleak for the Bolts. Thankfully for them, their second line showed up to make the score a bit more respectable. Palat began a rush down the left wing, flying down the ice. Seeing his chance, he rifled a wrist shot to the short side, beating Holtby with 6:57 left, cutting the deficit to 4-2.

If you’re a Lightning fan, chances are, you’re wondering where this third period effort was earlier in the game. Despite the two goals in the final period, the Bolts failed to generate a shot for about three-and-a-half minutes towards the end of the third period.

“We’re in a conference final. And we just didn’t treat it that way,” said Cooper. “I’m not taking anything away from Washington. Because they came out and executed their game plan, they played simple, earned their breaks, earned their power plays, and capitalized on them. We didn’t.”

Cooper added, “You can play the perfect game and execute your plan and do all that stuff and still not win. But at least you’re giving yourself a good chance to win. When you do this, you’re giving yourself basically zero chance to win. They were playing an Eastern Conference Final and we were playing Game 38.”

Puck drop for Game 2 is set for 8 pm at Amalie Arena.

Game Notes

-The Capitals out-shot the Lightning 32-21 in this game.

-While the Lightning had a lot of offensive zone time early on, they just didn’t register enough shots on goal. In fact, they set the kind of team record you don’t want to set in a playoff game:

-Anton Stralman was not on the bench for the start of the third period, but did return to the ice before the game ended.

-Tonight’s game marked the first time that Vasilevskiy was pulled from a game in these playoffs.

-Palat’s goal was fifth of the playoffs and fourth in the last five games.

Three Stars of the Game

1st Star: Alex Ovechkin – Scored the back-breaking power play goal at the end of the first period that put the Caps up 2-0 and added an assist.

2nd Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov – Notched a pair of primary assists.

3rd Star: Jay Beagle – Scored the third goal of the contest, effectively putting the game out of reach as the Caps increased their lead to 3-0.

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