WASHINGTON—If the Washington Capitals hope, finally, to get their names engraved in Lord Stanley’s Cup, they’ll need to prove that they’re special.
Most NHL champions have distinguished themselves with a hot goaltender (think Patrick Roy), or a bruising style (like the 1970s-era Philadelphia Flyers). Often, it’s a lethal power play that carries a team to the title.
That should be the 2018 Capitals’ calling card. This is their best chance at the Cup in two decades (and, given the rest of the field, arguably their best shot ever). They have one of the best goal-scorers in history in Alex Ovechkin and other snipers like T.J. Oshie and the emerging Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Still, the reason they’ve squandered a 2–0 lead in games over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals is their futility in specialty situations: both on the power play and penalty kill.
Technically, Alex Killorn’s decisive goal in Tampa Bay’s 4–2 Game 4 victory Thursday night was an even-strength tally. But it came just six seconds after Lars Eller was paroled from the penalty box after his second violation of the night.
His first infraction set up Steven Stamkos’ go-ahead goal late in the first period. This time, he couldn’t rejoin the action in time to stop Killorn from back-handing the puck past Braden Holtby with 8:03 to play.
Even with that “successful” penalty kill, the Capitals have allowed the Lightning to score on an unacceptable six of 14 extra-man situations (43 percent) in the first four games of this series.
Compounding the problem, Washington is just 3 for 14 (21 percent) with an extra man in this series. And the Capitals’ power-play struggles cost them Game 4.
Washington’s first power play of Game 4 was crisp and produced five shots, although none got past Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The next two—both in the next seven minutes of play—resulted in one shot, a dozen turnovers and a rare chorus of boos from the Capital One Arena as the home team left the ice.
If this series has proven anything (other than home ice is no advantage), it’s that sloppy play will be punished. The Lightning looked uncharacteristically disorganized in Games 1 and 2 and home, and the Capitals lit them up to the tune of 10 goals.
Barely a minute after Dmitry Orlov gave the Capitals a 1–0 lead with a rocket from Ovechkin’s favorite spot at the left circle Thursday night, Michael Kempny’s careless pass in his own defensive zone allowed Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point to tie it with a tap-in goal.
Less than two minutes later, Eller was whistled for holding at center ice, and the Lightning exploited their man advantage with some crisp passing that left Steven Stamkos open in front of a yawning net. His gimme putt put Tampa Bay up 2–1.
Further complicating matters was that Ovechkin spent virtually all six minutes of the futile power plays on the ice and logged a game-high 10:42 of first-period ice time on his 32-year-old legs.
The break between periods seemed to rejuvenate Ovechkin, who assisted on Kuznetsov’s game-tying goal 5:18 into the second period. And the Capitals dominated even-strength play, especially in the middle 20 minutes. They outshot the Lightning by an obscene 39–20 margin, and they also won 29 of 46 faceoffs in the first 40 minutes.
But the only statistic that really matters is pucks in the net, and the Capitals couldn’t get their power play on track. They managed just one shot on a second-period man advantage, even after the Lightning’s Tyler Johnson had to discard his broken stick and skated stickless for nearly half the two-minute penalty kill.
The Capitals dominated even-strength play Thursday night. But unless they figure out their issues with or without a man advantage, they may squander another golden opportunity.