Capitals fall to Lightning in playoff-esque overtime battle

March 21, 2019

The Tampa Bay Lightning seek what the Washington Capitals had last year: a Stanley Cup victory. The Capitals denied them that chance last year en route to their first title.

Tom Wilson recently dubbed the teams’ competition a rivalry, but on Wednesday, their entertaining regular season series added the bad blood normally associated with Capitals-Penguins.

A franchise record 58 shots on goal wasn’t enough for the Capitals, who lost to the league-leading Lightning 5-4 in overtime in a fast-paced spectacle of a game.

Evgeny Kuznetsov tied the game 4-4 with a last-minute 6-on-5 goal, but Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman scored the overtime winner.

NHL points leader Nikita Kucherov scored two power-play goals for Tampa Bay, and the Lightning’s special teams went a remarkable 3-for-3 on the power play and 5-for-6 on the penalty kill.

“Definitely a winnable game again for us, again,” Eller said. “Emphasis on staying out of the box because it’s costing us games. That’s an area where we can improve, but (at) five-on-five there were a lot of positives.”

Andrei Vasilevskiy matched the Capitals’ historic volume of shots by making 54 saves, a Lightning franchise record. Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper called Vasilevskiy “exceptional” and the team’s MVP for the night.

Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin and T.J. Oshie also scored for Washington and Braden Holtby stopped 23 shots.

Michal Kempny left the game with a lower-body injury and Jakub Vrana picked up his first professional fighting major after a long second-period fight.

Cedric Paquette and Kempny traded blows before Paquette knocked Kempny down, which hurt him in the left leg area. Paquette continued punching Kempny, leading to his teammates coming to his defense.

Vrana and Yanni Gourde were assessed fighting majors, and two other players from each side got roughing minors for the brawl.

Capitals coach Todd Reirden said “it’s safe to say” Kempny will miss some time with the injury, which will be further evaluated Thursday. He also praised his team for sticking up for one another.

“I’m proud of our team for how we played tonight, back to back, going against a fresh team ... We had lots of chances, lots of good things,” Reirden said. “The effort was outstanding.”

The Lightning beat the Capitals in their first meeting March 16, a game with a similar playoff energy to it. They’ll face off once more in Tampa March 30, and if they meet for an Eastern Conference Finals rematch, few people in hockey would be surprised.

“There’s a little bit of animosity and rivalry forming with them,” Reirden said. “They’re fun games for our guys to play.”

Washington struck first just after losing a faceoff in the offensive zone. Lightning winger Alex Killorn lost the puck attempting a spin move and Hagelin fed it ahead to Eller for a straight-ahead breakaway.

The Capitals controlled the first period, earning two power plays and limiting Tampa Bay to five shots on goal. But in the final minute, Wilson picked up a holding penalty near center-ice and the Lightning pounced on the opportunity.

After the period changed, Kucherov scored in the waning seconds of the power play. Moments later, the officials called Alex Ovechkin for elbowing; the Lightning won the ensuing faceoff and shuttled it to Steven Stamkos for a goal just four seconds into the man advantage.

Minutes later, Tampa Bay benefited from some puck luck. Amid a six-player scrum around Holtby’s crease, Anthony Cirelli attempted a lateral pass, but the puck hit John Carlson’s skate, changed direction 90 degrees and glided right past Holtby to make it 3-1.

The Capitals rallied to tie the game, starting with Eller and Hagelin teaming up. Eller sprinted to keep a loose puck in the offensive zone, and his pass found Hagelin for a back-door one-timer.

Oshie followed it up by breaking an eight-game goalless streak with a power-play goal, as he punched in a second effort from his position in the slot.

Kucherov would score his second goal before the fight that injured Kempny broke out.

The Capitals had their chances in the third, but Vasilevskiy and the Lightning defense stymied them. It wasn’t until they pulled Holtby in favor of the man advantage that Kuznetsov managed the equalizer.

In Kuznetsov’s typical fashion, he laughed while saying Wednesday night with his nine shots on goal and the important game-tying tally was “maybe my best game ever.”

Wednesday marked the final back-to-back of the Capitals’ season. They have only eight games left in the regular season, and their homestand continues Friday against the Minnesota Wild, a team clawing for a Western Conference playoff berth.