WASHINGTON—It took less than one period Monday night for Brooks Orpik and the Washington Capitals to prove they weren’t going down without a fight.
Orpik and Tampa Bay’s J.T. Miller squared off 15:48 into Game 6 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals, a game the Capitals needed to win to sustain their most successful playoff run in two decades.
A tone was set. Late in the second half of Washington’s 3–0 victory, fourth-line wing Devante Smith–Pelly flattened the Lightning’s Dan Girardi behind the Tampa Bay net (taking down teammate Jay Beagle as weel), then hustled to center ice and dropped Ondrej Palat with a bruising, legal hit.
After dropping three straight games to squander a 2–0 series lead, the Capitals clearly decided the finesse approach wasn’t working. So they got physical.
Washington’s 39–19 edge in hits was more impressive than its 3–0 margin on the scoreboard. Eight players were credited with multiple hits. The Capitals simply didn’t give the Lightning room to breathe, let alone pepper goalie Braden Holtby with shots. Holtby, who had struggled at times in the previous three games, was up to the task in recording his first shutout of the postseason.
The physical style took a toll on the Lightning, who were a little slower as the game progressed. That allowed Smith–Pelly to score a huge insurance goal midway through the third period when he beat Tampa Bay’s skaters down the ice.
It was a particularly rough night for Miller, whose most painful collision came with teammate Steven Stamkos at center ice while both were chasing the puck shortly after Smith–Pelly’s goal.
So effective was the strategy that the Capital One Arena crowd—which had booed the home team off the ice between periods in an earlier home game against Tampa Bay—gave the Caps a standing ovation this time.
“I think it was important,” Orpik said. “Obviously, playing at home, you want to get the crowd involved. They were loud from the star, and we fed off it. … I think the physical play helped.”
Think of the Capitals, and their scoring acumen probably jumps to mind. Alex Ovechkin led the NHL in regular-season goals for the seventh time in his 13-year career. Evgeny Kutznetsov has discovered his postseason groove, and Monday night’s hero, two-goal scorer T.J. Oshie, is also a capable marksman.
But Washington can play “heavy,” as well. Ovechkin weighs 235 pounds, Smith–Pelly 223. Noted bruiser Tom Wilson tips the scale at 218, Orpik at 217. When the Capitals want to get physical, they can do so as well as anyone in the NHL.
There’s obviously a fine line to flexing muscles. Go too far, and you put the Lightning on the power play—a man advantage they had exploited six times in 15 chances over the series’ first five games. Center Lars Eller was the most egregious offender, taking five penalties.
But the Capitals were more disciplined Monday night than they’ve traditionally been in elimination games. Washington gave Tampa Bay just two power plays. They allowed only one shot on the first penalty kill, and came closer to scoring a short-handed goal on the second than the Lightning came to beating Holtby.
That’s the kind of urgency you’d expect from a team with a dubious playoff history and a short life expectancy. Now the trick for the Capitals is to win a Game 7 on the road Wednesday—something they’ve achieved just once—in the 2012 first round at Boston.
“We’re a team that likes to play physical,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We need to do that every game. That’s our forte, and I hope we keep it going in Game 7.”