Steven Stamkos said the Lightning reclaimed it in Game 3.
“When you’re in a situation like we were, we needed to do it tonight. And we did,” said Stamkos, after the Lightning’s 4-2 road victory on Tuesday night reduced their series deficit to 2-1. “It’s a step in the right direction. But we can’t do it for one night and be satisfied.”
This is who the Lightning are: They defended expertly, limiting the odd-man rushes the Capitals used to outscore them 10-4 in the first two games.
They possessed the puck, making the Capitals chase the game rather than chasing it themselves, thanks to some tactical adjustments and line scrambling.
And as they have in other critical junctures of this postseason, the Lightning relied on their best players to rise to the occasion and rescue a series that had been firmly in their opponents’ grasp.
“They came in here, they’re desperate and they played that way,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz.
Stamkos ripped a power-play goal at 13:53 of the first period, on an assist from Victor Hedman. Nikita Kucherov blasted the puck past Capitals goalie Braden Holtby at 1:50 of the second period, reversing a trend of poor starts from the previous two games. Hedman assisted on that one too; and then Kucherov fed Hedman for a goal 1:47 later to make it 3-0.
“Those guys have delivered when we’ve needed them,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper.
Cooper pointed to Game 4 against the Boston Bruins in the conference semifinals, when Kucherov and Stamkos scored in a game that basically put that series out of reach. He pointed to Game 4 against the New Jersey Devils in the opening round, when Kucherov had points on all three Lightning goals.
In Game 3 against Washington, they led the way again.
“Today was one of those games you feed pucks to Kuch and Stammer, pucks are going to go in,” Hedman said.
Which power-play blast did Cooper like better?
“When they go in the net, they’re all nice,” he said.
But the key to the Game 3 victory was Tampa Bay’s refusal to squander that effort from their stars, both offensively and defensively.
The Capitals cut the lead to 3-1 on a Brett Connolly goal that ignited the home crowd. Brayden Point of the Lightning deflated those fans 5 minutes, 32 seconds later with his sixth goal of the playoffs.
“The team that really gets the lead is the team that’s in the driver’s seat. We talked about this. You’ve got to make them chase the game,” Cooper said. “Maybe they play a little different. That was big for us. They get that 3-1 goal and the building is kind of hopping a little bit and they pushed. Pointer getting that fourth one kind of popped the balloon. It’s just so much better to play with the lead.”
But those shots weren’t coming on odd-man rushes or high percentage parts of the ice: The Capitals had the fewest high-danger chances (six) of the series. Vasilevskiy was on his game, but so was the team in front of him.
“We checked. That was it,” said Cooper, on the differences between the first two games and Game 3. “You’ve got to check in this league. When you have a really good team like they do across the way, if you’re going to give them open ice to make their plays, that team will kill you — and they did it for two games.
“We had to check tonight, and it helped it go in our favor.”
Did the Lightning feel they owed their goalie one, after hanging him out to dry for 10 goals in the first two games?
“I think we always feel like we owe him,” defenseman Anton Stralman said. “He’s our best player. He’s always there for us, and we did a good job for him tonight. And that gives him confidence that we’re on. And that’s how it should be.”
This was how it should be for Tampa Bay. Its goalie playing stoutly. Its stars leading the way. The Lightning were the Lightning again in Game 3. They reclaimed their identity and their confidence, correcting their course in effort to reclaim ownership of this series.
“We haven’t done anything yet. The goal is to win a championship, but you can’t look too far ahead,” Stamkos said. “We’ve made it a series. That’s what we came in here tonight to do.”