For just the third time this postseason, there will be a Game 7, thanks to the Washington Capitals’ 2-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on home ice in Game 6 Monday night.
Despite plenty of shorter series’s, the league is still averaging one Game 7 per round (Boston defeated Toronto at home in a Game 7 in the First Round and Winnipeg eliminated Nashville on the road in a Game 7 in the Second Round).
The winner of Wednesday night’s Game 7 not only walks away with the Prince of Wales Trophy, but with an appearance in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
Braden Holtby stopped all 24 shots he faced and picked up his fifth career playoff shutout en route to the win for Washington, while Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy made 31 saves on 33 shots against for a .939 save percentage in 58:56 time on ice in the loss.
For the first time in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final the score was tied 0-0 after the first period. Neither team found the back of the net as both goaltenders stood tall, despite a bevy of chances thrown at or towards the net.
Washington came out strong, hitting everything in sight and firing off pucks on net. Tampa responded in kind around the halfway point of the period, but the Capitals readjusted and forced their way into the attacking zone for longer periods of time, it seemed.
Tempers flared as Brooks Orpik and J.T. Miller dropped the gloves in favor of squaring off with fisticuffs at 15:48 of the opening period. Both players were handed five minute majors for fighting and sent to the locker rooms early as only a little over four minutes remained in the first period.
With less than a minute remaining in the period, the Capitals desperately searched for a little puck luck on rebound after rebound in the low slot, but Vasilevskiy kept coming up big, culminating in a save in which the Lightning netminder dropped his stick and dove on his left side, making a glove save in the process.
After one period the score remained as the game began, 0-0, with Washington leading in shots on goal (8-6), blocked shots (8-6), hits (16-9), takeaways (8-2), giveaways (6-1) and faceoff win percentage (53-47). Neither team had seen any action on the power play as there were no penalties called in the first period.
The Capitals came up huge with their biggest penalty kill of the series up to that point, given the circumstances of a scoreless game in a game in which they were facing elimination.
The Bolts subsequently had a two-on-one of their own going the other way with Miller saucering the puck to Anthony Cirelli, but Holtby made the save.
A little past the halfway point of the second period, Braydon Coburn hooked Devante Smith-Pelly and the Caps went on the power play for the first time since Game 4 in the series at 13:49 of the second period.
Shortly after ringing the post, T.J. Oshie got a second chance at redemption.
Acting as the bumper in the low slot, Oshie (6) received a pass from Nicklas Backstrom and blasted a one-timer past Vasilevskiy sending Capital One Arena into a frenzy of euphoria as the home team went up, 1-0.
Backstrom (11) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (12) had the assists on Oshie’s power play goal at 15:12.
With less than a minute remaining in the second period, Washington had yet another two-on-one opportunity that just wouldn’t go past Tampa’s goaltender. Jakub Vrana followed up with a one-timer of his own as a mirror image of Oshie’s goal with about 30 seconds left, but Vasilevskiy made the initial save.
The puck squibbed free from the Bolts goalie and sat in the crease awaiting further direction until Brayden Point poked it clear to the boards as Oshie dove to either get his stick on the puck or break up Point’s last ditch defensive effort.
Nikita Kucherov swept in on an attacking zone faceoff in the final eight seconds of the second period and fired a shot that beat Holtby, but rang the iron.
Through 40 minutes of play, the Capitals led, 1-0. Washington also had the advantage in just about everything else, including shots on goal (24-14), blocked shots (15-9), hits (29-13), takeaways (11-4), giveaways (7-3) and faceoff win percentage (59-41). Tampa was 0/1 and the Caps were 1/1 on the power play after two periods.
After trading chances to start the third period, the Capitals still held onto a one-goal lead.
Just past the halfway mark, Smith-Pelly (4) put an exclamation mark on the insurance goal as Beagle beat out the icing call, kept the puck down low in the attacking zone for Chandler Stephenson to dish out to Smith-Pelly on a no-look spin pass as Smith-Pelly was flying in the low slot undetected.
Smith-Pelly followed up with a one-timed wrist shot that beat Vasilevskiy and gave Washington a 2-0 lead at 10:02 of the third period. Stephenson (5) and Beagle (4) had the assists.
A minute later, Backstrom tripped up Ondrej Palat and the Lightning went on the power play for the second time of the night at 11:03.
The Capitals penalty killing unit not only kept the puck out of their own net, but they kept it out of their own zone, sending two shots on goal shorthanded while Tampa failed to record a shot on goal while on the power play.
Washington killed off the penalty and kept charging.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos collided with his own teammate just past the twelve-minute mark in the period, sending J.T. Miller to the ice with an elbow to the head. Miller was slow to get up, but skated off under his own power, sat on the bench and leapt back into the action after the next stoppage in play.
Protocol was definitely followed and your eyes were deceiving you.
Vasilevskiy vacated Tampa’s goal crease with about two minutes remaining in regulation as the Lightning tried to score two quick goals with the extra skater.
Bolts Head Coach Jon Cooper used his timeout 30 seconds later prior to a face-off in the attacking zone to the left of Washington’s netminder to go over every scenario with his team.
Despite winning the faceoff, the Lightning could not get a shot past Holtby and the Capitals worked the puck out of their own zone.
Beagle kept the puck onside as Backstrom held onto the puck to assure his team of the victory, making a selfless pass to Oshie to give the Washington goal scorer an easy layup for the empty net goal.
Oshie (7) scored his second goal, pocketing the rubber biscuit in the gapping 4-by-6 net, and gave the Caps a three-goal lead. Backstrom (12) had the only assist on the goal that sealed the deal for a 3-0 win.
At the final horn, the Capitals had tied the series, 3-3, thanks to a 3-0 victory in Game 6. Washington dominated the final stat sheet, leading in shots on goal (34-24), blocked shots (20-13), hits (39-19), giveaways (10-6) and faceoff win percentage (54-46). Tampa finished the night 0/2 on the skater advantage, while Washington completed the night 1/1 on the power play.
Game 7 is Wednesday night at Amalie Arena in Tampa. Puck drop is set for a little after 8:00 p.m. ET and fans can catch the action on NBCSN, CBC, SN1 or TVAS. The winner will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.