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Vasilevskiy, early success key for Lightning’s run at Stanley Cup

Photo by Wayne Masut

Tampa Bay and Washington have both benefited from first-period success throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Ask anyone who has ever played competitive sports before and they’ll tell you: everything seems better when you have the lead. Well, both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals have had success getting out in front. And they don’t waste time in doing so.

On Thursday night, the Lightning and Capitals both held first-period leads.

The Capitals, playing in front of their home fans, took advantage of Dmitry Orlov‘s second goal of the playoffs — securing an early 1-0 lead. However, the visiting Lightning stormed back with two goals in less than three-minutes, helping propel them to a 4-2 victory, evening the series before Game 5.

With their 2-1 advantage in the first period Thursday, the Tampa Bay Lightning have now scored 17 goals  during the opening period of these playoffs. Washington has scored 16. It’s no coincidence that these two clubs have out-scored their opponents regularly (TB +6, WAS +8) in the first period. And they’re now battling for a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Great 88

For Tampa Bay, goals by Brayden Point and captain Steven Stamkos, each their seventh of the playoffs, lifted the team after falling behind early. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy thwarted 14 shots on goal, including three from Alexander Ovechkin, during the opening frame and helped eliminate several scoring chances by a Washington power-play unit that went o-for-3 with the man-advantage. Throughout the playoffs, the Bolts have allowed only five goals during 25 penalty kills.

“[Vasilevskiy] was there to bail us out,” the Lightning captain said after the game. “That’s why he’s one of, if not the best goalie in the world. He’s given us a chance throughout the year when we haven’t had our best and tonight was another example of that.”

The Lightning are now 5-1 on the road in the playoffs and the road team has won every game in this series.

“For whatever reason it’s worked so far in this playoffs, not just this series,” Stamkos said. “We’ve found success on the road and you need to if you wanna be where we are.

Where they are is in possession of home-ice advantage in the series — something that wasn’t very likely three days ago. Regardless of what happens moving forward, these two teams enjoy the first period, and have seen greater success there than any other period. It’s a matter of which team can continue that success over the remaining 40 minutes.

Fun with Vasilevskiy

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper was not happy with his team’s performance during the second period, blaming four early penalties for the “lost momentum”. After managing only seven shots during the opening period, the Lightning didn’t add to that total until midway through period two. The momentum lost by Tampa Bay turned into momentum gained by Washington.

The combination of Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who netted his 10th playoff goal in the second period, regularly challenged Tampa’s defense, and Vasilevskiy.

The Russian goaltender was fantastic in net. Whether it was defending the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov duo on the penalty kill, or an even-strength surge during the third period, Vasilevskiy showed the Nation’s Capital exactly why he was nominated for the Vezina Trophy.

After stopping 36-of-38 shots in Game 3, he posted an identical line on Thursday. During the two games played in enemy territory he denied the Capitals on 72-of-76 shots. Surely, the play of stars like Stamkos, Point, and Nikita Kucherov are providing the necessary offense but make no mistake: this series is returning to Tampa, even at two games, mainly because of the net play of a 23-year-old.

His success is not lost on his teammates. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh has enjoyed his time with Vasilevskiy since coming over at the trade deadline.

“I think [Vasilevskiy] is a young goalie for this league,” he said after the game. “But my gosh does he seem calm and composed out there. Just so determined to never give up on the play. He wants to be as solid as he can back there and give us a chance to win. It’s fun to play in front of a goalie like that.”

Our Three Stars:

1st Star: Vasilevskiy (36 saves)

2nd Star: Point (1 goal, 1 assist)

3rd Star: T.J. Oshie (1 assist, 4 shots, 4 hits)

Up Next:

Game 5 is Saturday night in Tampa. Puck drop is set for 7:15 PM EST on NBC.


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