Through 30 minutes, the Lightning appeared well on their way, Steven Stamkos’ 12th goal of the season capping a 3-0 start for the Bolts.
The final half of the game, though, was one the Lightning would just as soon forget.
The Caps scored five unanswered goals to complete a three-game sweep of Tampa Bay. The Caps have now won five-straight over the Lightning.
A number of failures contributed to the Bolts’ meltdown in D.C.
Here were the main three.
1. PULL THE TRIGGER
Before Friday’s game, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper was asked about Steven Stamkos’ goal slump, which had reached 10 games. Cooper talked about the need for Stamkos to get more shots on net and give himself a chance to score.
“Sometimes when you’re not scoring, you all of a sudden, maybe it gets in your head that, ‘This may not go in for me. I’ve got to pass this,’” Cooper said.
Stamkos made a concerted effort to shoot more in Washington and was rewarded with a goal, which put the Lightning up 3-0.
The rest of the Bolts would have been wise to do the same.
Tampa Bay registered just 19 shots in D.C., their lowest output of the season. The Lightning’s three power plays netted only four shots and no goals.
The Lightning simply didn’t send enough pucks at the Washington net, particularly once they chased Capitals starter Braden Holtby after going up 3-0. Caps backup Phillip Grubauer only had to make seven saves over the final 30 minutes of the game.
One early sequence underscored the Bolts reluctance to shoot. Already ahead 1-0, Stamkos lined up a shot from just beyond the circles that was knocked away by Holtby. Nikita Kucherov latched onto the rebound and had a two-on-one with Vladislav Namestnikov behind the rest of the Caps defense. The one, Karl Alzner, was shaded toward Namestnikov on the back post, giving Kucherov a good look at the net.
Kucherov, however, passed up the shot and tried to hit Namestnikov. The pass was unsuccessful, and the puck and scoring chance drifted away.
Kucherov should have shot. And the rest of the Lightning should have too.
2. THE TURNING POINT
Ovechkin’s second-period power-play goal wobbled the Lightning but wasn’t the knockout blow.
That came when nearly eight minutes had elapsed in the third period.
Kucherov and Namestnikov combined again to produce a primo scoring chance with Namestnikov getting an open one-timer from the slot. Grubauer wasn’t called on often to make saves, but he came up with a big one at that point, getting a piece of Namestnikov’s shot to swat it away.
T.J. Oshie intercepted Stamkos’ pass and started up the other way, skating past Braydon Coburn on the right wing. From just inside the circle, he zipped a wrist shot over the glove of Bishop to cut the deficit to one.
The Verizon Center erupted.
Momentum had swung completely to the Capitals.
“We make that 4-1, and it’s probably game over,” Cooper said. “And they come down and score on that, and now it’s a one-goal game with a lot of time left.”
A little over a minute later, Victor Hedman was sent to the penalty box for interference, and the tying goal seemed inevitable.
Only fitting it was Ovechkin to provide the dagger.
The Lightning were certainly cognizant just how dangerous the Washington power play could be. They got a taste firsthand when the Caps converted three-of-four opportunities in a 4-2 win over the Bolts three weeks earlier at the Verizon Center.
Brian Boyle, who leads the Bolts for average penalty-kill TOI at 2:15, said the team was well-prepared for how to deal with the Caps power play. It just didn’t execute.
“It’s disappointing,” Boyle said. “We’re better than that as a unit. The fourth goal was a bonehead play by me. I just didn’t get it all the way out…We prepared for it. We put a lot of thought and effort into it. The mistakes we made, it should be automatic. It should never happen, like that fourth goal.”
The Caps again were awarded four power plays on Friday. They were successful on their final three, the last two coming at pivotal moments of the game.
In their previous trip to the Verizon Center, the Bolts allowed Ovechkin to take up residence in his customary spot in the left circle where he plays all two minutes of the power play, waiting for the perfect pass to set up his lethal one-timer.
The Bolts did a good job of taking away Ovechkin’s trademark on Friday, sacrificing their bodies to get down low on the ice and block it away. The Caps, though, did their damage on power-play rushes.
“They weren’t their usual setup. Those don’t happen that often,” Cooper said. “They just found a way and shot the puck where the goalie wasn’t.”
Cooper said before the game it was imperative the Lightning stayed out of the box against the Caps. They did through the first and second periods for the most part, but they took two crucial penalties in the third with the Caps building momentum that proved to be the difference.
“That’s a tough one to swallow because, for the most part, I thought 5-on-5 we played extremely well,” Stamkos said.
Added Cooper: “We’ve got to get back to a little bit of discipline there, play a little smarter. We’ve had a few games of late here where we’ve taken penalties in the third and had to kill them off. Unfortunately, when you’ve got to keep doing that, you’re bound not to kill them all off.
“Tonight was that night.”