Vasilevskiy makes ECF a best-of-three series

 

By winning Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals 4-2 at Capital One Arena, the Tampa Bay Lightning have reclaimed home-ice advantage from the Washington Capitals by leveling the series at two victories apiece.

With Washington out-shooting the visiting Lightning 38-20, no Bolt deserves more credit for the victory than First Star of the Game G Andrei Vasilevskiy. After allowing the first goal of the game to D Dmitry Orlov (F T.J. Oshie and D Matt Niskanen) only 4:28 into the contest, Vasilevskiy proceeded to post a 36-for-38 effort (.947 save percentage) despite facing no fewer than nine shots against per frame. In particular, Vasilevskiy stood extremely tall when taking on Washington’s four power plays, as he saved all nine shots faced while his club was shorthanded.

Meanwhile, G Braden Holtby only wishes his play looked anywhere near as good as Vasilevskiy’s. His 16-for-19 performance (.842 save percentage) was borderline disastrous, especially given the incredible help his offense was providing him.

Wait, offense?

Yes, it was not the Capitals’ defense, but their offense that truly kept Holtby’s workload light. Not only did they more than double Tampa’s shots on goal in both the first and second periods (15-7 and 14-6, respectively), but the Caps also held extended possessions in their offensive zone. Pair that with Oshie’s two takeaways and W Devante Smith-Pelly‘s six hits, and you find a team that made life so easy on its goaltender that he just might have grown complacent.

That’s not to say the goals he allowed were soft. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Take for example Second Star F Brayden Point‘s (F Yanni Gourde and F Tyler Johnson) tic-tac-goal only 1:10 after Orlov’s that tied the game at one-all. Holtby was forced to shade towards his left post when he saw Gourde – who scored 25 goals this season, the fourth-most among all rookies – all by himself inside the near face-off circle, but some deft passing across the slot to Point was all the second line needed to take advantage of a sloppy pass by D Michal Kempny.

Similarly, it’s hard to blame Holtby for his second goal allowed in the first period, registered only 2:54 after Point’s. This time, he was tasked with keeping Tampa’s lethal power play off the scoreboard thanks to C Lars Eller‘s holding penalty against RW Nikita Kucherov 1:05 before.

A power play that had scored at least once in eight previous contests is obviously in a groove, and that groove continued at the 8:32 mark of the game when C Steven Stamkos (Point and F J.T. Miller) set the score at 2-1 with a one-timer from the slot.

For those keeping track at home, the Lightning now sport a 30.8 percent power play conversion rate that is tops among the four teams still competing for the Stanley Cup, trailing only Boston – their opponent in the previous round – for the mark of best power play in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Though the score never changed, the remaining 11:28 of the first period was far from uneventful. However, the previously mentioned shots on goal were not the only activity as even the missed shots drew many a Capitals fan to his or her feet. In particular, W Alex Ovechkin had more than his fair share of salivating shots on net – both in this frame as well as the entire game – but many of those whizzed past the wrong side of the post and harmlessly crashed into the endboards.

Just when it seemed like Vasilevskiy was going to be unbreakable for the remainder of the tilt, Third Star F Evgeny Kuznetsov (Ovechkin and RW Tom Wilson) sprung hope anew in Washington with his wrist shot 5:18 into the second period.

With the exception of Kuznetsov’s path taking him along the left boards instead of between the face-off circles, this goal was eerily reminiscent of the marker that eliminated Pittsburgh from the playoffs for the first time since April 2015. A long pass from Ovechkin sprung his countryman for a breakaway opportunity against the goaltender (who, by happenstance, is also a fellow Russian), who he beat five-hole.

Thanks to some incredible defense played by both clubs (RW Ryan Callahan matched Smith-Pelly’s six hits and D Ryan McDonagh blocked a game-high four shots), that 2-2 tie lasted 26:39 before Tampa third-liner F Alex Killorn (W Ondrej Palat and D Mikhail Sergachev) provided the game-winning goal.

Struck six seconds after Eller was released from the penalty box (his second foul of the night, this time for hooking the eventual goalscorer), Killorn showed some impressive puck-handling skills inside the crease to convert a forehanded shot that would likely be stopped by Holtby’s left leg into a backhand that sneaked between the netminder’s wickets.

With 2:09 remaining in regulation, Head Coach Barry Trotz was forced to pull his goaltender for the second consecutive game. Tampa Bay was unable to convert on the empty net in Game 3, but rookie C Anthony Cirelli bested that effort with 62 seconds remaining to cement the Bolts’ series-evening victory.

Now that they’ve given up the home-ice advantage they worked so desperately to win in Florida, the Capitals must now find a way to win at least one more game at Amalie Arena. A good first step towards doing that – especially for Eller – will be to avoid the penalty box, as the Caps’ 73.7 percent successful penalty kill is the worst remaining in the playoffs.

Saturday is the day for the Eastern Conference Finals’ all-important Game 5. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Eastern (right after the Preakness Stakes) and may be viewed on CBC, NBC and TVAS.