It was vintage Alex Ovechkin, a one-timer from the left side of the offensive zone that had so often injected life into his Washington Capitals. This one buzzed past Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and fluttered the back of the net. The problem was that there was just 1:36 left in the game, and it cut Washington’s deficit from two goals to one. The Capitals returned to their bench for a brief timeout, a conference for a final push. It was all too little and much too late.
Washington fell into an early hole and never climbed out of it in a 3-2 Game 5 loss. Now the Capitals face another deficit, down 3-2 in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals. After winning the first two games of the series they have lost three straight, and one more will end their season.
Twenty-one teams have won the first two games of a best-of-seven conference finals or Stanley Cup finals on the road in the past 50 years. All 21 went on to win the series. None of those series lasted more than six games, and if Washington advances, it will have to be with a Game 7 win in Tampa.
But before the Capitals can get there, they will have to reconcile how they started this game so poorly, yielding three goals in the first 21 minutes.
“It’s unexplainable, obviously,” center Jay Beagle said.
“We ended up on our heels, not executing, not playing quick, and dug ourselves a hole,” Coach Barry Trotz said.
Down two goals after an abysmal first period, Washington dug itself into a bigger hole by allowing the Lightning’s fourth line to score 33 seconds out of intermission. Defenseman Anton Stralman skated up the ice and drove the net. Winger Ryan Callahan crashed the net, and the rebound from Stralman’s shot went off Callahan’s glove to get past goaltender Braden Holtby. That gave the Lightning a 3-0 lead, and Tampa Bay had twice struck in the opening minute of a period.
We stunk in the first,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “They just outskated us, outbattled us, and the first shift in the second, I just get burned wide and they get another one.”
Niskanen ultimately took the blame for all three Tampa Bay goals. The Lightning’s fourth line came into the game having combined for two points among center Cedric Paquette, Chris Kunitz and Callahan in the postseason. By the end of the game the trio had two goals and had slowed down Ovechkin, who was held without a single shot on goal through two periods.
The Capitals were feeling positive as the series returned to Amalie Arena. Trotz said he felt his team had been the better one in three out of the first four games. As the team took the ice for Thursday’s morning skate, players laughed and joked around, seemingly loose. Washington entered Game 5 with a 7-1 record on the road in the postseason. The Capitals had won the first two games in Tampa thanks to fast starts, but that element was missing Saturday.
Just 19 seconds in, Paquette scored when some sloppy neutral-zone play by the Capitals allowed a two-on-one. Paquette intercepted defenseman Dmitry Orlov’s pass to create the turnover, and Paquette was all alone as Callahan fed him the puck at the edge of the left faceoff circle.
The top defensive pairing of Orlov and Niskanen was involved in Tampa Bay’s second goal, too. Orlov was carrying the puck at the Lightning’s offensive blue line when Steven Stamkos dropped him, arguably a trip that went uncalled. Orlov lost the puck, and Nikita Kucherov got it to set up Ondrej Palat, who used a kneeling Niskanen as a screen on Holtby. That gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead 9:04 into the first period, injecting confidence into a Tampa Bay team that had struggled in this building during the first two games of the series.
“We’ve just got to keep our composure,” Holtby said. “The second goal, obviously, we know it’s a missed call. That doesn’t happen if Orly doesn’t get tripped. That’s where we’ve done a really good job of regrouping.”
After the Capitals finished with four shots in the first period — T.J. Oshie’s wrister from 55 feet away from the net was the only shot from a forward in the opening 20 minutes — the Capitals controlled play for the majority of the second and third periods. Trotz was frustrated that the team still didn’t draw a single power play all game. Washington finished with 30 shots to Tampa Bay’s 22.
Trotz flipped centers Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, moving Backstrom to the line with Ovechkin and right wing Tom Wilson. Less than five minutes into the second period, Kuznetsov tipped a Niskanen point shot to trim Tampa Bay’s lead.
But the two-goal deficit proved too much to overcome in the third period, and for the first time this postseason, the Capitals are on the brink of elimination.
“I think it’s important just to let them know we’re not going anywhere,” Oshie said. “They had a really good first period, but after that I think we really took it to them. Their goaltender made some big saves. We hit some posts. Not that we’re going to lean on those and feel bad for ourselves, but I think we can feel confident going into the next game where if we’ve got everyone playing, we’re going to do a good job.”
A brutal start for the Caps: Barry Trotz joked during an in-game interview that his team might’ve thought Game 5 started at 8 p.m., but there was nothing funny about Washington’s sluggish first period. Cedric Paquette gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead on its first shot only 19 seconds into the first period, and while the Lightning’s 180-goal pace slowed considerably, things got worse before they got better for Washington. Tampa Bay added to its lead on Ondrej Palat’s goal eight minutes later and the Lightning thoroughly dominated the first 20 minutes, outshooting the Capitals 13-4. Braden Holtby kept Washington close, but the early hole ultimately proved too big to overcome.
On the brink of elimination: To avoid becoming the first team out of 22 in NHL history to build a 2-0 lead on the road in a best-of-seven conference finals series and not advance to the Stanley Cup finals, the Capitals will have to first win Game 6 on Monday at Capital One Arena. Washington had won its previous two pivotal Game 5s this postseason, both of which came with the series tied 2-2 and paved the way for series-clinching wins in Game 6. This is the Capitals’ first three-game losing streak since mid-January and it comes at a most inopportune time.
Too little, too late: Alex Ovechkin, last seen smashing his stick against the crossbar after the Capitals’ lost Game 4 at home Thursday, didn’t register his first shot on goal of Game 5 until the final two minutes. Ovechkin scored on his second shot, a gorgeous one-timer from just behind his favorite spot, the left side faceoff circle, but it wasn’t enough. It didn’t help that Washington didn’t have a single chance on the power play; Brett Connolly’s minor for holding in the first period was the only penalty of the game. Meanwhile, Evgeny Kuznetsov continued his brilliant postseason. Playing on his 26th birthday, the Capitals’ center scored his team-leading 11th goal of the playoffs. The goal gave Kuznetsov a new franchise record for points (22) in a single postseason, breaking the previous mark set by Ovechkin in 2009.
Home team gets a W: For the first time this series, the home team celebrated a win, and it did so largely thanks to Andrei Vasilevskiy. Tampa Bay’s red-hot goaltender faced only four shots in the first period, but he ended up with 28 saves on 30 Capitals shots in the game. Vasilevskiy had struggled at home this postseason, including during Games 1 and 2. This was only the 26th best-of-seven series in NHL history in which the road team won the first four games. Vasilevskiy ensured it didn’t become the fourth series in which the road team won the first five games and has the Lightning in position to clinch a trip to the Stanley Cup finals Monday in Washington.
Final: Lightning 3, Capitals 2
With just under a minute to play and an extra attacker on for the Capitals, Andrei Vasilevskiy gobbled up a John Carlson shot from the point through traffic. Washington would have two more great chances in a frantic final minute, but Dan Girardi blocked an Alex Ovechkin one-timer and Vasilevskiy stoned Carlson on the doorstep to seal the win and give Tampa Bay a three-games-to-two series lead.
Late life: About 30 seconds after Braden Holtby headed to the bench for the extra skater, Alex Ovechkin teed up a one-timer from just behind his favorite spot and beat Andrei Vasilevskiy to pull the Capitals within 3-2 with 1:36 to play.
Tick, tock: The chant at Amalie Arena was “Let’s Go Bolts!” as Game 5 dipped below three minutes in regulation and the home team still leading 3-1. The Capitals continue to dominate the chances this period, but they’ve been unable to solve Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Close, but no cigar for the Caps: A beautiful pass from T.J. Oshie led to another chance for Evgeny Kuznetsov in front of the net, but the Capitals’ center couldn’t get his stick on the puck in the ensuing scrum and it was eventually cleared out of harm’s way. About a minute later, Alex Ovechkin whistled a shot off the post. With six minutes to play in regulation, Washington is running out of time for near-misses.
Ovechkin still looking for his first shot on goal: Just past the midway point of the period, Braden Holtby came waaaaay out of his net to deny a potential breakaway for the Lightning. At the other end, Alex Ovechkin skated in on Andrei Vasilevskiy and was in good position for a chance, but Dan Girardi went down to block his slapper and deflected it over the glass.
Vasilevskiy bails out his defense: Nicklas Backstrom recorded his first shot on goal with 12:26 to play in the game, but Andrei Vasilevskiy made a routine glove save on the play and held on to give both teams a breather. Out of a media timeout, Evgeny Kuznetsov made a bid for his second goal of the game off a turnover in Tampa Bay’s zone, but Vasilevskiy got enough of his wrister from the slot to preserve the Lightning’s 3-1 lead.
Chances tough to come by in the third: The Capitals and Lightning had one shot apiece during the uneventful first five minutes of the third period. This might be a good time to point out, as NBC’s Doc Emrick did, that Brett Connolly’s holding minor way back in the first period remains the only penalty of the game. Washington could use a power play in the worst way.
Nothing doing for the Capitals’ captain: Alex Ovechkin, who had 45 shot attempts and 19 shots on goal through four games, had no shots on Andrei Vasilevskiy through two periods. “He looks to be a little fatigued,” Mike Milbury said early in the third, though the NBC Sports analyst was sure to credit Ovechkin for his excellent postseason to date. Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom also failed to register a shot on goal during the first two periods on Saturday.
Which was more unsettling … : the Capitals’ first period, or the tonsil-hockey displayed on the big board at Amalie Arena “Kiss Cam” during a second-period stoppage in play?
End Period 2: Lightning 3, Capitals 1
It was a very low bar, but Washington played a lot better in the second period than it did in the first and outshot Tampa Bay 12-5 in the frame. Andrei Vasilsevskiy turned away 11 of those shots, including an impressive glove save on a John Carlson chance just before intermission.
If the Capitals are to avoid heading back to D.C. facing a must-win Game 6, they’ll have to do something that no other team has done against the Lightning this postseason. Tampa Bay is 8-0 when leading after two periods during the playoffs.
Vasilevskiy standing tall: Meanwhile, Andrei Vasilevskiy apparently wasn’t lulled to sleep by the Capitals’ dreadful first period. The Lightning’s goaltender has looked every bit as good as he was in Games 3 and 4 while Washington has continued to apply pressure in the second period. Vasilevskiy made one of his better saves of the night when he stoned Devante Smith-Pelly on the doorstep after a nice pass from Jay Beagle with 15 minutes gone by in the frame.
— Kevin ODonnell Fox13 (@ODonnellFox13) May 20, 2018
Caps no longer sleepwalking: With 9:41 to play in the second period, the Capitals appear to have awoken from their early offensive slumber, but they’re still facing a two-goal deficit. “It’s like we thought it was an 8 o’clock start here,” Barry Trotz told NBC Sports’ Pierre McGuire during a stoppage in play. Shots were 17-11 Tampa Bay.
Momentum shifting?: The Capitals are still being outshot 16-10, but Washington has peppered Andrei Vasilevskiy with three shots and rang another off the post in the two minutes since Evgeny Kuznetsov put Washington on the board.
Caps get one back: With 15:39 to play in the second period, Matt Niskanen ripped a shot from the point that Evgeny Kuznetsov redirected past Andrei Vasilevskiy for his team-leading 11th goal of the playoffs. Kuznetsov, who is celebrating his 26th birthday today, also set a new Capitals franchise record for points in a single postseason (22) with the tally.
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) May 20, 2018
Deja vu and a 3-0 lead: It took Tampa Bay a little longer to strike in the second period than in the first, but not by much. Thirty-three seconds after intermission, Braden Holtby made a stick save on Anton Stralman’s rebound attempt, but Ryan Callahan hit the loose puck out of mid-air and into the back of the net. Officials reviewed the goal to determine whether Callahan swatted the puck in with his glove, which would have nullifed the goal, and confirmed that it did not.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) May 20, 2018
The key for the Bolts?: Asked about the key to his team’s fast start during the first period, Lightning Coach Jon Cooper credited the simple fact that his team was skating, which is an essential skill for any hockey team. “If our [defensemen] are skating, we’re all coming up together, we’re much better off,” Cooper said.
During the first intermission, NBC Sports analyst Anson Carter also gave props to the Lightning’s defensive effort for limiting Washington to four shots on goal. It was particularly impressive after Tampa Bay allowed 76 shots in the last two games.
“Their D’s been outstanding,” Carter said. “Tampa Bay’s defensive corps has been really mobile, they’ve been closing gaps, they’ve made life very miserable on the Washington Capitals. … The forwards are coming back, applying support, making it a lot easier for the defensemen to stand up.”
End Period 1: Lightning 2, Capitals 0
The Capitals do know this game is being played in Tampa Bay, right? Are they perhaps confused by the heavy rain that’s falling outside Amalie Arena? Barry Trotz should probably remind them during the first intermission just to be sure.
After dominating the Lightning in Games 1 and 2 in this building, Washington opened Game 5 with one of its worst periods of the postseason. The Capitals were outshot 13-4 and can only hope red-hot Tampa goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy lost some of his sharpness while hardly being tested in the first 20 minutes. Braden Holtby deserves some credit for keeping it only a two-goal game.
Washington struggling to get shots: With five minutes remaining in the first period, Tampa has 10 shots on goal to Washington’s two. In terms of puck possession, it’s been all Lightning to start this game.
Caps survive first penalty: With the Lightning already leading 2-0, Tampa Bay got its first chance on the power play with 8:11 remaining in the first after Brett Connolly tackled Brayden Point while on the forecheck. The Lightning managed two shots on its first chance Saturday, and J.T. Miller put a third opportunity wide of the net from just in front of Braden Holtby, but Tampa Bay failed to score with the man advantage.
Two-goal hole: Welp. With 9:04 gone in the first period, Ondrej Palat received a pass from Nikita Kucherov and wristed a shot through a kneeling Matt Niskanen’s legs and past Braden Holtby for a 2-0 Tampa Bay lead. Before the goal, officials appeared to miss what should’ve been a tripping penalty on Steven Stamkos. Meanwhile the Capitals have yet to register a scoring chance of their own.
The @TBLightning have scored their second goal of the game.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) May 19, 2018
The goal was somewhat controversial as it appeared Steven Stamkos may have tripped Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov, leading to Tampa’s scoring opportunity.
Sluggish start for the Caps: With 11:20 to play in the first period, Tampa Bay had a 5-1 advantage in shots on goal and a 4-0 edge in scoring chances. About the only good news for the Capitals was that the deficit was only one, as the Lightning failed to keep up its 180-goal pace.
Lightning still controlling the play: The Holt-by chants started early at Amalie Arena, and five minutes into the first period, Tampa Bay had the game’s only three shots on goal. Mikhail Sergachev slid to block a Capitals shot on a two-on-one before it got through to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who deserves a rest after facing 76 shots over the last two games.
Gone in 19 seconds: So much for Tampa Bay’s slow starts. The Lightning needed only 19 seconds to take a 1-0 lead off a neutral zone turnover, with Ryan Callahan sending a pass ahead to Cedric Paquette, who beat Braden Holtby five-hole. Tampa Bay is 7-1 when scoring first this postseason. The Capitals had scored first in three of the first four games of this series, including a goal by Tom Wilson only 28 seconds into Game 2.
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) May 19, 2018
Caps juggle lines for Game 5: Nicklas Backstrom will resume his normal slot on the second line alongside T.J. Oshie. Chandler Stephenson will skate on the left wing. While it has to be encouraging for Washington to get Backstrom back in his normal slot, the move disbands one of Washington’s most successful line combinations by breaking up Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller and Oshie. That line had a plus-21 shot advantage over their opponents in the playoffs, according to hockey metrics site Corsica. Vrana and Eller will be joined by Brett Connolly on the third line.
Will act of Valor be an early omen?: The Nationals have shown their support for the Capitals during the postseason by donning Capitals hats, T-shirts and even jerseys over the past few weeks. Current and former Redskins and Wizards players have rocked the red at recent playoff games. On Saturday, Washington’s Arena Football League team got in on the act. Valor wide receiver Reggie Gray celebrated his third touchdown reception of the first half by holding up a T.J. Oshie Capitals jersey as he ran around the field at Capital One Arena. Gray added a fourth touchdown to his first-half hat trick, but the Baltimore Brigade defeated the Valor, 42-41, in a matchup of Ted Leonsis-owned teams.