TAMPA, Fla. — If the Washington Capitals fail to advance past the third round of the playoffs, it won’t be because of Alex Ovechkin.
The team’s captain has been one of the best players in this year’s playoffs. Ovechkin has 11 goals and 21 points in 17 games — one less than linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov — including three goals and three assists in the conference final. But it’s not just his offensive game that’s made him stand out.
When the goals or even the shots weren’t coming in Game 5, the six-foot-three, 235-pound winger simplified his game by taking the body. He delivered a game-high six hits, which might have played a part in Washington’s late-game comeback.
“I think early he felt that he could change the game, separating some people, create some turnovers,” Washington head coach Barry Trotz said. “He was on a mission. But he was trying to lead us to find another way to win or make a difference rather than just the big shot, trying one-on-one.
“Physically he’s a beast when he wants to play physical. He was just looking for a different element to try to change the game.”
It was an odd game for Ovechkin, who scored a late goal to bring the Capitals within one, but finished the game with a minus-2 rating and did not get his first shot on net until there were four minutes left in the third period.
“They blocked a lot. He missed a lot,” Trotz said of Ovechkin, who had three shots on net, three that were blocked and one that missed. “Some of Ovie’s best chances hit the net … he didn’t want to come off the ice the last four minutes, that’s for sure.”
Washington defenceman Matt Niskanen, who was on the ice for all three of Tampa Bay’s goals, had probably his worst game of the playoffs. And he knew it, taking the full blame for the loss. “The first three goals were all my fault,” he said.
Trotz didn’t necessarily agree with the assessment. But he did appreciate that Niskanen took responsibility.
“He’s a standup guy. He doesn’t run from anything,” Trotz said. “I do sort of honour his ability to stand up and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t have a great game.’
“He wasn’t the only guy. We win and lose as a team, as an organization, all those things. He’s very valuable to us. He’s been a rock for us, not only on the ice, off the ice. He’s been exceptional.”
Andrei the giant
The improved play of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is a big reason why Tampa Bay is one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup final after starting the series down 2-0. He allowed 10 goals on 62 shots in the first two games, but since then has given up just six goals on 106 shots to give his team a 3-2 series lead.
“He’s certainly raised his game,” said Capitals defenceman John Carlson, who added that the team has to do a better job of getting bodies in front of the net. “I think we’re making a lot of good plays, we’re getting a lot of good chances. Just that one extra guy here and there is a big difference for a goalie. I think we got to bring that extra guy in to possibly be a rebound option, pass option, just make him think a little bit, make him guess a little bit.”
Home sweet home
With the exception of Game 5, home ice hasn’t been much of an advantage in the conference final. But after the Lightning won at home for the first time in the series, the Capitals will try to continue that trend.
“It can be a positive, for sure,” Washington forward Tom Wilson said of the team’s comfort level at home, where the Capitals went 28-11-2 in the regular season. “There’s going to be a ton of energy in that building. We’re going to have to use it. They did a good job coming out and scoring on the first shift, creating that atmosphere in their building. We’re going to have to do the same. It can be hard to play a road game when you get stepped on early. We can maybe take a page out of their book, make sure we get on them early, make sure we play the full game.”
Saturday night’s win was the first time in 10 games that the Lightning went without scoring a power-play goal. But it wasn’t as big a deal, because for the first time in these playoffs they also went an entire game without taking a penalty.
“It’s huge,” said Lightning forward Tyler Johnson, who praised the team’s improved five-on-five play for the Game 5 win. “I thought we’ve actually played pretty well at certain points, just haven’t been rewarded with goals. I thought we fought harder for that. But I think we still have some room for improvement in that aspect. We’re a five-on-five team, so we need to be able to play like it.”
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