Heading into the Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning were feeling good about their situation. They had needed just 10 contests to advance through the first two rounds. They had just ousted rival Boston. All aspects of their game seemed to be clicking.
The Washington Capitals had won the Presidents' Trophy in both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 regular seasons. But each year, they had lost in the second round to Pittsburgh. In 2017-18, they had again finished first in the Metropolitan Division, but with 13 fewer points than in the year before. In the previous two seasons, the Caps had entered the playoffs as favorites to win the Stanley Cup. That was not the case in 2018. Perhaps because they had fallen short in those other two seasons - not to mention every year in the Alex Ovechkin-era - and their 2017-18 regular season hadn't been quite as dominant. There was also talk that Head Coach Barry Trotz would not be returning for the next season. (This rumor turned out to be true).
So expectations weren't as high for the Caps as the 2018 postseason began. And they almost didn't make it out of the first round. Against Columbus, they lost the opening two games at home. The Blue Jackets won each in overtime. Game Three also went to OT and the Jackets hit the post during the first overtime session. The Caps were inches away from being down three games to none in the series. But the puck stayed out and eventually, the Caps won it in double overtime, benefitting from some puck luck. Following a Sergei Bobrovsky save on Brett Connolly's shot, Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski tried to sweep the puck away from the low slot. But Werenski's clear attempt hit off of Lars Eller, pinballed back off Werenski, and caromed into the net. Those fortunate bounces completely changed the trajectory of Washington's playoff run. Game Three featured another important storyline in the Caps' eventual championship. In the first two games, the Caps had started Philipp Grubauer over Braden Holtby, although Holtby relieved Grubauer in Game Two. For Game Three, Trotz started Holtby, who earned the win. From that point on in the 2018 postseason, Holtby started every playoff game for Washington.
Buoyed by Eller's goal, the Caps won the next three games against Columbus, including another overtime contest in Game Five. Then it was on to Round Two against nemesis Pittsburgh. As already mentioned, the Penguins had dashed Washington's hopes in both 2016 and 2017. But the Caps' struggles against Pittsburgh went well beyond those two years. The Pens had been tormenting the Caps in the postseason since the 1990s. In all five of Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup Championship seasons (1991, 1992, 2009, 2016, and 2017), they had eliminated Washington in either the first or second round. In three of those years, the Pens had beaten the Caps in a Game Seven that had been played in Washington. Pittsburgh had also knocked out Washington from the playoffs in 1995, 1996, 2000, and 2001.
In Game One, the Penguins stunned the Caps by rallying from a 2-0 third period deficit with three unanswered goals. But the Caps shook off that tough defeat. They won three of the next four games and headed to Pittsburgh for Game Six with a chance to exorcise all those demons from years past. They didn't let the chance slip away. Early in overtime, Evgeny Kuznetsov converted on a breakaway to propel the Capitals into the Conference Finals.
After finally vanquishing their arch-rivals, the Caps were flying high. And they carried that momentum into Game One against the Lightning. In the first period, they grabbed a 2-0 lead and held the Lightning to just two shots on goal. The second goal was a killer. The Lightning had taken a penalty at 19:52. The Caps won the ensuing faceoff and Ovechkin drilled in a one-timer from the slot at 19:54. After two periods, the Caps had extended their lead to 4-0 and were outshooting the Lightning, 25-10. The Lightning tried to rally in the third. They popped in two goals, but would get no closer.
With their low shot output and the goal they allowed to Ovechkin in the closing seconds, the Lightning lost Game One in the first period. They would lose Game Two in the second period. By comparison, the first period was a good one for the Lightning. After yielding an opening minute goal to Tom Wilson, the Lightning rallied with a pair of power play tallies. Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos both converted to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes. But early in the second, the Lightning turned the puck over in offensive zone and yielded a three-on-one counter rush. Devante Smith-Pelly scored to tie the game at two. Which led to the decisive final 62 seconds of the period. First, following a strong forecheck, the Caps retook the lead with 1:02 remaining. Jakub Vrana set up an open Eller in the slot for a redirection goal. Then, with 10 seconds left in the period, the Lightning took a penalty. Just like in the first period of Game One, the Lightning got burned in the closing seconds of a frame. From the corner, Kuznetsov banked in a shot to make it 4-2.
Last second goals in periods are gut-punch tallies to allow. It had happened to the Lightning in each of the first two games. The Eller and Kuznetsov goals late in the second period of Game Two gave the Caps momentum. They cruised in the third, adding two more tallies in a 6-2 win.
The Capitals were very sharp in the first two games. They played big - and fast. They were crisp in their execution. They limited scoring chances against. They netted important goals at key times. It's also true that the Lightning, outside of their power play, had not played well in Games One and Two. They made costly mistakes in their puck management, decision making, and d-zone coverage. Unlike their opponent, they didn't make key plays at critical times. As an example: the two late-period Washington power play goals could have been avoided had the Lightning been able to win the d-zone faceoff.
So as they headed to Washington for Game Three, the Lightning were in a big hole. And not just because they lost the first two contests at home. Just as importantly, they didn't look like the team that had been so in synch during the first two rounds.
The Lightning did improve their play in Game Three. And they were greatly helped by the one area of their game that had been strong in the first two contests. The Lightning's power play accounted for three of their four total goals scored in Games One and Two. In Game Three, the Lightning netted two more power play tallies.
During a first period man advantage, Stamkos blistered a one-timer from the left circle over Holtby's left shoulder. Early in the second, they added another. Just 16 seconds after Eller took a penalty, Nikita Kucherov ripped a one-timer from the right circle over Holtby's left shoulder at 1:50. Less than two minutes later, the Lightning made it 3-0. The Caps lost coverage on Victor Hedman, who skated into the slot, accepted a feed from Kucherov, and one-timed the puck into an open side of the net. Soon after, the Lightning received their third power play opportunity and had a chance to extend their lead to four. But the Caps killed it off and eventually scored their first goal of the game. Brett Connolly's tally at 10:31 made it 3-1 and sparked the Caps. They applied heavy pressure over the next several minutes. They posted the next six shots on net (including three during a power play chance of their own) and generated several Grade-A scoring chances. But Vasilevskiy stopped all six, keeping the Lightning lead at 3-1. Then, with just under four minutes left in the frame, Point took the wind out of Washington's sails. He won a battle for a loose puck at the left circle and zipped a shot past Holtby.
In the third period, the Caps fired 13 shots on net. The final seven of those came during a late flurry. Kuznetsov scored a sixth-attacker goal with 3:02 left. Then, as they did after Connolly's second period goal, the Caps surged. They posted six more shots in the closing minutes with the extra attacker on the ice. But thanks to Vasilevskiy, the Lightning navigated their way to the finish line. They won Game Three, 4-2.
The Caps came out buzzing to begin Game Four and would score first. Moments after T.J. Oshie almost converted on a tip, Dmitri Orlov blasted a left circle shot into the top of the net. But 70 seconds later, the Lightning answered. Deep in the Washington end, Caps defenseman Michal Kempny turned the puck over with an errant backhand pass. The puck slid directly to Tyler Johnson, who fed it quickly to Yanni Gourde at the right circle. Gourde went cross-ice to Point, who stuffed it into an open side of the net. Not even three minutes later, the Lightning had the lead. Stamkos netted his fourth power play goal of the series, finishing a quick passing sequence from the bottom of the left circle.
Over the final nine minutes of the period, the Lightning took three separate penalties. But they killed off all six minutes and got out of the period with their 2-1 intact. But from the start of the second period, the Caps heavily tilted the ice. During the first 14 minutes of the middle stanza, the Lightning were under siege. They yielded a high volume of scoring chances and were outshot, 13-2. Kuznetsov tied the game with a tally off the rush at 5:18, but that was the only goal Vasilevskiy allowed in the period. It was 2-2 heading into the third.
Over the first several minutes of the third, the Lightning continued to struggle. The Caps owned seven of the period's first eight shots and again, Vasilevskiy was a big reason why things were still tied. But the game's storyline changed when Eller took a penalty at 9:51. It was only the Lightning's second power play chance of the game - and first since the opening period opportunity that led to Stamkos' goal. But as it had done throughout the series, the Lightning's power play delivered. Officially, Alex Killorn's goal came six seconds after Eller's penalty had ended, but Killorn scored it before Eller could completely get back into the play. From the left point, Mikhail Sergachev worked the puck behind the net to Ondrej Palat. John Carlson started to chase Palat and left room in front for Killorn. Palat hurried the puck to Killorn, who went from his forehand to his backhand before slipping a shot between Holtby's pads.
Over the final eight minutes of the game, the Caps managed just two more shots on net. Unlike in Game Three, there would be no heavy sixth-attacker surge. Anthony Cirelli sealed the win with an empty-netter in the closing seconds.
The Lightning had clawed their way back in the series with the wins in Games Three and Four. But even in those contests, the Caps had, at different points, dominated play and put the Lightning back on their heels. In the first period of Game Five, the Lightning flipped that script. They were ones to dominate play. Cedric Paquette scored on the opening shift, finishing an in-alone chance after the Lightning forced a neutral zone turnover and countered. Ryan Callahan delivered a one-armed hook pass from the left circle and Paquette finished his shot at :19. Palat added to the lead, zipping a shot from the slot past Holby's stick at 9:04. In the first period, the Lightning outshot Washington, 13-4.
They would post the first two shots of the second period, too, and once again, scored in the opening minute. Anton Stralman drove wide around Matt Niskanen and took the puck to the front of the net. Holtby stopped Stralman's shot, but the rebound bounced off Callahan and into the net.
At that point, the Lightning seemed to be in good shape. They had a 3-0 lead. They were thoroughly outplaying the Caps. They owned a 15-4 shot advantage. But following Callahan's goal, the Capitals took over.
Over the final 39 minutes, the Lightning only managed seven more shots on net. The Caps owned nearly all of the puck possession and applied consistent pressure. Kuznetsov got Washington on the board at 4:21 of the second with a deflection goal to make it 3-1. After that, Game Five was the Andrei Vasilevskiy show. Vasilevskiy faced 26 shots over the final two periods. After the Kuznetsov goal, he kept the Caps off the board until Ovechkin's sixth-attacker tally with 1:36 left in the game. Those closing 96 seconds were white-knucklers for the Lightning and their fans. The Caps kept the puck in the offensive zone and recorded three more shots, including a close-range Carlson attempt with time winding down. But the Lightning held on for a 3-2 triumph.
Thanks to their wins in Games Three, Four, and Five, the Lightning were within a game of the Stanley Cup Final. We all remember how this ended, though. The Callahan goal early in the second period of Game Five was the Lightning's final goal scored in the series. They lost Game Six, 3-0, and Game Seven, 4-0. These two shutout defeats are often lumped together when describing how the Caps rallied and how the Lightning faltered. But they shouldn't be. When we look at the final score of both contests, yes, Games Six and Seven were similar. But in terms of how the Lightning played, the two games did unfold differently.
In looking back at the series, people within the Caps organization have told me that, in their opinion, Washington played one of its most complete games in Game Six. From the Lightning's perspective, Game Six was a lost opportunity. They never forced the Caps to be in an uncomfortable position during that game. The opportunity might have been there in the first period. Relative to many of the other periods in the series, the first period of Game Six was somewhat quiet. The teams combined to post just 14 shots. There were no power play opportunties. There was one glorious scoring chance - Vasilevskiy made a tremendous save on Kuznetsov in the final minute to keep the game scoreless.
But then in the second, the Caps surged. They posted 15 shots on net and finally broke through against Vasilevskiy. Oshie scored during a power play at 15:12. In the third, Smith-Pelly finished a chance from the slot at 10:02. Oshie added an empty-netter.
In Game Six, the Lightning didn't play on their toes. In Game Seven, at least for the first half of the contest, they did. Ovechkin scored off a bullet slapshot at 1:02 to give Washington an early lead. But the Lightning pushed back immediately. They owned more possession time than Washington throughout the rest of the first and early part of the second. Holtby was far busier than he had been for much of Game Six - and he did well to keep his team up by a goal. Early in the second, Yanni Gourde had an open net chance, but he missed wide. After the early Ovechkin goal, the key Holtby saves and the Lightning's missed chance on the open net contributed greatly to the eventual outcome.
Just shy of the midway point of the game, Andre Burakovsky jumped on a loose puck in the Lightning end and finished a chance in front. That made it 2-0 and took some of the bite out of the Lightning's attack. Burakovsky scored again before the period ended, catching the Lightning on a line change and converting a breakaway look. That was it. The Caps had a 3-0 lead and locked it down in the third. A late empty-netter set the final at 4-0.
In the end, the Lightning did play better in Game Seven than they had in Game Six. But not well enough. The Caps were deserving of the series victory. In every game, they had segments in which they overwhelmed the Lightning with their speed and size. (Maybe with the exception, ironically, of Game Seven. That was a game that they won with timely offense and great goaltending.)
For the Lightning, there were some noteworthy performances in the series. Vasilevskiy gave up 10 goals in the first two games. But he was a big factor in the three Lightning wins. And he kept them close for much of Game Six. By the second period of Game Two, Lightning were matching a line of Callahan, Paquette, and Chris Kunitz against Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Tom Wilson. Their physical play helped the Lightning in that matchup. Most of the damage done by Ovechkin's line came either on the power play or during sixth attacker situations. And the Paquette line contributed two goals in Game Five. Stamkos and Kucherov - along with the rest of the Lightning team - were kept off the scoresheet in Games Six and Seven. But they both had an impact in the first five games. In those five contests, Stamkos scored four power play goals and posted six points. Kucherov had five points in the five games.
Looking back at this series reminded me of the 2016 ECF matchup between the Lightning and Penguins. In both 2016 and 2018, the Lightning faced a team that seemed to hit its stride at just the right time. Even still, they won three games against each opponent. But just as 2016 belonged to Pittsburgh, 2018 was the Capitals' year. After all those promising seasons that had ended in disappointment, the Caps finally put it all together in the 2018 playoffs. They would go on to defeat Vegas in five games to win their first Stanley Cup. Once the Caps got past Pittsburgh and exorcised those demons, they played the final two rounds at a Championship level. They were the Kool-Aid man busting through a wall.