TAMPA, Fla. — The thing about playing on home ice is that it only becomes an advantage if you give the crowd something to cheer about.
That didn’t happen in the first four games of the Eastern Conference final, when the visiting team played the role of the unruly party crashers by making a mess and leaving. In Games 1 and 2, the visiting team outscored the home team 10-4. In Games 3 and 4, the margin was 8-4.
As Washington’s Brooks Orpik had said, “it seems like home-ice advantage is becoming less and less of a factor.”
And then in Game 5, Tampa Bay took back its home.
The game was 19 seconds old when fourth-line forward Cedric Paquette stole the puck and gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead. It was the hockey equivalent of showing an unwanted guest the door. And it set the tone in a 3-2 win that put Tampa Bay one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup final.
“The roof came off when we scored that first goal,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “You could see our team got a little taller on the bench. Our crowd helps us out so much and it’s probably why we’ve had the home record we’ve had the past few years. But you can’t get caught up in that emotion … we haven’t won anything yet.
“Let’s be honest. You have to win four — not three. But to have the effort.”
The best-of-seven series now shifts back to Washington for Game 6 on Monday, where the Capitals will try to hold serve in a conference final that seems to have got away from them.
“We said it before the game, we just have to win two games,” said Washington captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored his 11th of the playoffs. “It’s OK. We’re going to play better in Game 6 and we have to bounce back and come here and play a Game 7 and that’s it.”
For most of this series, it had been the name players and superstars doing most of the damage. On Saturday, it was the grunts’ time to shine.
The Lightning not only received goals from Paquette and Ryan Callahan — their first and second of the playoffs, respectively — they received them in the opening minute of the first and second periods. Even more impressive, they also did it while Ovechkin was on the ice.
“Matched up against a line like Ovie’s, your main focus is keep the puck out of the net,” said Callahan, who had a goal and an assist. “Would we like to be on the scoresheet more than we have during these playoffs? Absolutely.”
If the crowd was looking for a reason to be engaged, this was it.
In Games 3 and 4, the Lightning arguably stole wins on the road thanks to a very potent power play and the heroics of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. This time, the Lightning deserved everything it got.
Seconds after the opening faceoff, Paquette pressured Washington’s Dmitry Orlov into coughing up the puck to teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was stripped of the puck by Callahan before passing it back to Paquette for the game’s first goal.
Tampa Bay wasn’t done. In what was their most dominant period of the playoffs, the Lightning outshot the Capitals 13-4 and scored again when Orlov gave the puck away to Nikita Kucherov, who then found Ondrej Palat. Using a Washington defenceman as a screen, Palat beat Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby with a shot that he might not have seen.
Why the sluggish start?
“Probably looking at an eight o’clock start — not a 7:15,” said Washington head coach Barry Trotz. “I just felt that we didn’t get going and obviously they scored the first goal — first minute — and you’re a little bit on your heels right off the bat.”
The second period started the same as the first. Except this time it took the Lightning 33 seconds to score.
Once again, Tampa Bay put out its fourth line against Washington’s top line. And once again, hard work prevailed over skill, with Callahan batting in a rebound after defenceman Anton Stralman drove the puck to the net.
“In the beginning of the series it was them that scored those timely goals either early or late in periods,” said Stralman. “And then tonight we were able to find two quick ones in the first and the second. Especially the one in the first, that sets the tone … it’s probably our best 20 minutes of this series and probably the playoffs.”
Down 3-0, the Capitals started to play their best hockey and made it a one-goal game on goals from Kuznetsov and Ovechkin. But the hole was too deep for Washington to climb out of.
The way Tampa Bay has been playing lately, the series is starting to feel the same way.
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @Michael_Traikos