The Washington Capitals are an elite team in the NHL - they now have 100 points with still three weeks left in the regular season. They also are a club that always plays well against the Lightning (and that's when the Lightning have a lineup not depleted by injury). Again in this game, the Caps dictated play for long stretches and forced Andrei Vasilevskiy to produce a number of remarkable saves.
So the Capitals were deserving of the victory. But what makes the defeat tough to swallow for the Lightning is that they had an opportunity to get points out of this game. They battled back from an early two-goal deficit and were tied, 2-2, entering the third period. Ultimately, though, the Lightning just made too many costly mistakes, miscues that the talented Caps were able to exploit.
Two of those Caps goals off mistakes came early in the game. The Caps' power play is one of the most lethal in the NHL and traditionally does damage against the Bolts. So it hurt when, just 2:33 into the game, the Lightning took a bench minor for too many men on the ice. On the ensuing man advantage, the Caps held the puck in the offensive zone for over a minute and applied heavy pressure. The Bolts had one excellent chance to fire the puck down the ice, but couldn't execute a clear. Moments later, a tic-tac-toe passing sequence led to T.J. Oshie's goal from the slot.
Later in the first, the Lightning got caught in the offensive zone and surrendered a two-on-one to Alex Ovechkin and Oshie. Oshie tallied his second goal to extend the Washington advantage.
The Lightning got those two goals back in a sixteen-second span, however. Nikita Kucherov netted a power play goal at 15:52 and on the next shift, Alex Killorn finished a shot from the slot following a Washington d-zone turnover.
In the second period, both teams had opportunities to score. Washington had more frequent looks, but Vasilevskiy made 13 stops in the frame. Those included several remarkable saves on Andre Burakovsky, who had a strong game in his return from a hand injury. The best Lightning chances came from Killorn, Jonathan Drouin and Gabriel Dumont. Braden Holtby made saves on Killorn and Dumont, while Drouin's attempt hit the post.
Still tied after 40 minutes, the Lightning had given themselves a chance to earn at least one valuable point. But two more key mistakes early in the third were significant. Moments after getting through an early third period penalty kill, the Lightning "stopped playing" as Jon Cooper put it. They couldn't retrieve the puck and lost coverage in the d-zone. Matt Niskanen stormed off the Washington bench and reached a drop pass before it left the offensive zone. He blasted a shot that an open Justin Williams tipped past Vasilevskiy. The goal came just 13 seconds after the penalty had expired.
Then, just over two minutes later, the Lightning took another penalty. This infraction occurred in the neutral zone and all the Lightning had to do was touch the puck to stop play. But they never did. Instead, during the delayed penalty call, the Capitals brought it into the offensive end and set up John Carlson for an open look from the slot. He batted the puck out of the air into the net, extending the Washington lead.
For most of the rest of the game, the Capitals stifled the Lightning's attack and limited dangerous chances. Still, Kucherov did get one goal back at 18:30. With Vasilevskiy on the bench for an extra attacker, Brayden Point won an offensive zone faceoff and Kucherov rifled the puck past Holtby. But Oshie completed his hat trick by scoring into an empty net in the final minute.
This was a tough assignment for the Lightning, facing the top points team in the NHL and doing so with an injury-ravaged lineup. The Lightning don't play again until Tuesday and hopefully the two days off will be beneficial for the sidelined players. While the Lightning only dropped one point on Saturday to both the Islanders and Maple Leafs (the two teams directly ahead of them in the wildcard race), they desperately need to end this two-game losing skid when they host Arizona on Tuesday.
Lightning Radio Big Moment of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
John Carlson's goal, which turned out to be the game-winner.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
- T.J. Oshie - Capitals. Hat trick and assist.
- Nicklas Backstrom - Capitals. Four assists.
- Nikita Kucherov - Lightning. Two goals, including his 100th career goal.