WASHINGTON – The shots came from all over the ice, more put on goal by the Capitals than any game in franchise history.
If that was how they kept score then maybe Washington would have left Wednesday night with two standings points instead of just one. But that was what the Capitals got after a 5-4 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning that had it all.
Fights and injuries and big saves and ridiculous passing and last-second goals and a pace that felt much more like the Stanley Cup playoff games these two teams played in the Eastern Conference Final last season.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman scored the game winner in the extra period. By then Washington had fired a record 58 shots on goal. But Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had 54 saves in a brilliant night. That, too, was a team record. There was a lot of that going around Wednesday in one of the best games in the NHL this season.
“There’s encouraging things,” Capitals center Lars Eller said. “But again the feeling is that a game got away from us that was very winnable. Those always hurt. As they should.”
Washington has eight games to go now. It is 43-23-8 and three points ahead of the New York Islanders (42-24-7), who are in second place in the Metropolitan Division. The Capitals are five points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins (39-24-11, 89 points). The division is far from wrapped up, but even this single point against Tampa Bay could make a huge difference.
“Obviously, we competed right to the end to get a point, and we know there's some areas we can make it a little more difficult on them, kind of take a few pointers from their game,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “They're a good team, we're a good team, and it's been two very close games. That's what you want going into playoffs. That's how you can learn the most and grow your team the most. It's a loss, but it's one that we can really hone in on and analyze and see those little, tiny things that are going to put us over the edge."
One obvious area to improve is the penalty kill. Tampa Bay scored on all three chances with the man advantage, which was reminiscent of last year’s playoff series where they were dominant in that area in three wins at Capital One Arena. When those opportunities dried up in Games 6 and 7, so did the Lightning, who were shutout twice in a row by Holtby.
That just didn’t happen on Wednesday. There were too many breakdowns and a bit of bad luck and Tampa has elite skill on that unit. Star winger Nikita Kucherov scored twice. The Capitals trailed 3-1`, fought back to tie the game with a power-play goal of their own from T.J. Oshie, and then 4-3 before Evgeny Kuznetsov tied it with a 6-on-5 goal with 53 seconds left. He looked like the player who could have own the Conn Smythe Trophy as Stanley Cup playoffs MVP last year after taking nine shots and imposing his will on the game at even strength.
Washington could stand to see more of that from Kuznetsov, who hasn’t always found that level of his game consistently this season. He joked it was his best game ever when a reporter asked if it was his best game of the season.
“This was a fun game to play and I believe we played pretty well tonight and just did not score,” Kuznetsov said. “But that’s better when you have the chances and you did not score than (if) you played like a bad team and you end up winning. I can trade those type of game when you lost a game like that than if you play bad and get win.”
Now Washington waits to see about the injury to Michal Kempny, who plays on the top pair with John Carlson. He got in a scrap with Cedric Paquette and a pile of players fell on him in the second period. Kempny couldn’t put any weight on his right leg and will “be out for some time,” according to coach Todd Reirden.
How long? That’s a big questions. Injuries at this time of year hurt the most with the playoffs so close. A lineup that has basically been stable since the trade deadline on Feb. 25 will have to adjust if Kempny is gone for a while.
“Every team is going to get banged up this time of year,” forward Carl Hagelin said. “It’s all about resilience. You have to find a way to win games even though you have guys out so other [defensemen] stepped up.”
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