In terms of flow of play and momentum, this was a tale of two games. The first period was, with a doubt, the Lightning's best period of the series so far. Their strong play carried over into the beginning of the second period. But shortly after Ryan Callahan's goal made it 3-0 at :33 of the second, the Capitals pushed back. They carried play for much of the final 16 minutes of the second. Then in the third, the Capitals made a furious push in the final 10 minutes of the third.
The Lightning's formula for five-on-five success in this series (and throughout the playoffs) has been a straightforward one. When the Lightning manage the puck well, execute tape-to-tape passes and play a "North" game, they end up spending little time in their own end and can use their speed to forecheck the opposition. Those components also help them retrieve pucks when the opposition has possession - the Lightning do an excellent job taking away the opposition's time and space.
In the first period, the Caps saw what the Lightning threw at the Devils and Bruins in the earlier rounds. The Lightning's execution was spot-on, so they owned most of the puck possession in the period. On the opening shift, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan tenaciously won a loose puck and maneuvered it into the Washington end. Callahan one-armed a pass past Matt Niskanen to Paquette, who finished an in-alone chance on Braden Holtby. Before the period was halfway old, Ondrej Palat extended the lead. He zipped a shot from the high slot past Holtby, who appeared to have been accidentally screened by Niskanen. The Lightning could have scored more than two in the frame - they posted two dangerous shots on what was the game's only power play and registered a handful of other Grade-A looks during five-on-five play. In all, the Lightning recorded 13 shots and held the Caps to just four. Three of those four were innocent, long-range shots. The other was a scoring chance for John Carlson, but it was Washington's only look in the entire period.
The Paquette line added another opening minute goal in the second. Anton Stralman drove around Niskanen and forced his way to the front of the net. Holtby made the initial save, but the rebound bounced off Niskanen's stick and then Callahan's glove into the net.
At the time of Callahan's goal, shots were 15-4. Shot attempts were 31-8 in favor of Tampa Bay. But the tide was about to turn. The Lightning began to struggle with puck management and committed some icing infractions. Slowly, the Caps started applying offensive zone pressure. Following one of those icings, Evgeny Kuznetsov tipped in a Niskanen shot to get the Caps on the board.
Washington used that goal to grab momentum and applied consistent pressure for the next several minutes. Andrei Vasilevskiy made tough saves on Carlson and Devante Smith-Pelly. Also during this timeframe, Christian Djoos hit the post with a shot.
The Caps had a few other dangerous looks in the second, but Vasilevskiy stopped them all. Still, the Lightning spent most of the rest of the frame defending in their own end and the Capitals enjoyed the vast majority of puck possession.
The Bolts settled things down in the first half of the third period. The Caps only posted four shots during the opening 10 minutes of the third and the Lightning generated some Grade-A chances on Holtby. But they couldn't extend the lead. Then, in the second half of the period, the Caps got another momentum surge. Vasilevskiy stopped eight of the final nine Washington shots down the stretch (Alex Ovechkin did score a sixth-attacker goal with 1:36 remaining) to preserve the Lightning lead. And even though they had some trouble with puck management (and therefore ceded much of the puck possession to the Caps), the Lightning did defend hard in front of Vasilevskiy. In the third period, the Lightning blocked 11 shots and tied up Washington players when there were potential second-chance opportunities on rebounds.
The Caps have been dangerous with the sixth-attacker in each of the last three games - they've scored twice and applied lots of pressure. After Ovechkin's goal cut the Lightning lead to 3-2, the final 1:36 was tense. Vasilevskiy made three tough saves and the Lightning received key blocks from Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Victor Hedman to help seal the win.
Obviously, the Lightning's terrific start was a key part of the win. Also, they got a monster game from the Paquette line and another marvelous performance from Vasilevskiy in the second and third periods.
Ultimately, the big difference in the game was that when the Lightning dominated play, they netted three goals. When the Caps surged, they only managed two. As a result, the Lightning grabbed their first lead in the series and have a chance to close it out on Monday in D.C.
Lightning Radio Big Moment of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
Vasilevskiy's key saves.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
- Ryan Callahan - Lightning. Goal and assist.
- Andrei Vasilevskiy - Lightning. 28 saves.
- Cedric Paquette - Lightning. Goal.