How the Caps beat the Tampa Bay Lightning
How the Caps beat the Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning were heavily favored, but after seven games it was the Washington Capitals who were crowned Eastern Conference Champions for the second time in franchise history. Washington jumped out to a 2-0 series lead with two wins on the road, lost the next three, but battled back to win Game 6 and Game 7 to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Here are the biggest reasons why the Caps claimed their first conference crown since 1998.
Even the most optimistic of Caps fans probably did not expect this series to start off the way it did. The Capitals marched into Amalie Arena for Game 1 and Game 2 and completely dominated the Lightning, winning both games by a combined score of 10-4. Tampa Bay was favored to win this series and for good reason given the talent assembled on their roster, but what many did not count on was the momentum the Caps gained from finally beating the Pittsburgh Penguins. Beating their archrival for the first time since 1994 boosted the Caps to an early 2-0 series lead over Tampa Bay.
They solved Tampa Bay's power play
To start the series, Tampa Bay's lethal power play was a problem. Washington had no answer for the Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov scoring tandem as the Lightning scored at least one power play tally in each of the first four games of the series. They scored on six of 14 opportunities and you can really make that seven of 14 because they also scored a goal six seconds after a power play had elapsed. The penalty kill, however, finally began to click late in the series and the Lightning's power play dried up. They finally figured out how to best cover both shooters without leaving the other wide open. Washington did not allow a single power play tally in any of the last three games.
They stayed out of the penalty box
One aspect that helped the Caps' penalty killers was the fact that the team stopped taking penalties. A power play can't score if its never on the ice. After giving up 14 opportunities in the first four games, Washington played a much more disciplined game giving up just four opportunities in the last three games.
Tampa Bay's offense really struggled in this series. It did not feel that way until the last few games because their numbers were initially propped up by the power play. In seven games, the Lightning scored only 15 total goals, only eight of which came at 5-on-5. Nikita Kucherov had only two assists at 5-on-5 while Steven Stamkos had no points at all. While the Lightning managed only 15 total goals, that's how many that Caps had just at 5-on-5. Special teams are important, but the majority of a series is played at 5-on-5. It's hard to win with one side doubling up the other and with one team's superstars completely blanked.
Despite winning the first two games, the Caps faced elimination in Game 6 after losing three straight. They responded with arguably their best all-around performance of the season in a 3-0 win. The Caps hit everything that moved and overwhelmed the Lightning with their physical play, wearing them down as the game went along. Andrei Vasilevskiy had a strong performance in net, but he was matched save for save by Braden Holtby who earned the shutout win.
Braden Holtby's consecutive shutouts
Prior to Game 6 and Game 7, Braden Holtby played in 54 regular season games and 16 playoff games. He did not record a shutout in any of them. The Caps faced elimination for the first time this season in Game 6 and Game 7 and Holtby did not allow a single puck behind him in either game. Holtby was magnificent to finish the series as he held the Lightning off the scoreboard for 159:27 with 60 straight saves. The last goal of the series for Tampa Bay came 33 seconds into the second period of Game 5. Holtby is now just the fifth goalie to record back-to-back shutouts in Game 6 and Game 7 of a playoff series.
Putting Andre Burakovsky back in the lineup
Mark this down as one of the best calls of the postseason for Barry Trotz. Andre Burakovsky missed the majority of the first round and all of the second due to an upper-body injury that required surgery. He came back in Game 1 against Tampa Bay and did not play well, eventually getting scratched in Game 5. When the Caps dropped Game 5 and faced elimination, Trotz went back to Burakovsky despite the fact that Alex Chiasson had played well in Game 5 in his stead. Trotz needed his optimal lineup to fend off elimination and Burakovsky rewarded his coach's faith in him. Despite not recording a single point in the postseason leading up to Game 7, Burakovsky scored twice in the decisive win to lead the Caps.