WASHINGTON — The hyperbole came in fast and furious.
Best on the ice. Best in the league. Best in the world.
On this night, it was difficult to argue against any of the assertions.
You don’t win the Vezina Trophy in the playoffs. But if there was any doubt why Andrei Vasilevskiy was named a finalist for the award this season, the Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender showed it in a 4-2 win against the Washington Capitals in Game 5.
“He was amazing,” said Tampa Bay’s Ondrej Palat. “The best player on the ice for sure. He’s a Vezina goalie for a reason.”
“That’s why he’s one of the best goalies in the world,” said captain Steven Stamkos. “He’s given us a chance.”
“Luckily for us,” said Lightning forward Tyler Johnson, “we had Vasy in net back there.”
Indeed, the Lightning stole this game. They don’t deserve to be going back home for Game 5 with the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final tied 2-2. They were outshot, outchanced and outplayed for most of the game.
If not for Vasilevskiy, who made 36 saves including a point blank stop on Brett Connolly with the game tied in the third, Tampa Bay would be on the ropes. Instead, a team that lost the first two games at home only to steal back two on the road suddenly has momentum.
For the first time in this series, the pressure is on Washington, despite being the better team for most of this series.
“We’ve played well in three of four games,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “Sometimes the road you want to get to isn’t always straight. I can’t say we didn’t play well. We played very well in a lot of areas of our game.
“This group has been resilient as hell all year. Nothing’s come easy for this team. We’re going to go to Tampa. I expect us to respond the way we have all year.”
The game started just the way that the Capitals had scripted it.
Less than a minute after the opening faceoff, injured forward Nicklas Backstrom took the ice for his first shift of the Eastern Conference final and received a standing ovation. The Capitals, who had been without Backstrom for the previous four games, kept the crowd on its feet a few minutes later when Dmitry Orlov blasted a one-timer into the far-right top corner.
And then, for whatever reason, Washington decided to kill the good vibes.
About a minute after going up 1-0, Washington defenceman Michal Kempny gifted Tampa Bay a goal when he attempted a no-look backhand pass up in the middle of the ice. Stealing the puck was Johnson, who converted a tic-tac-toe passing play with Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point — dubbed the “waterbugs” by head coach Jon Cooper — to tie the game.
Steven Stamkos then put the Lightning ahead 2-1 on yet another power play goal — his fourth of this series — after Lars Eller took a needless holding penalty.
Down 2-1, Washington set the tone early in the second period when T.J. Oshie delivered a huge hit on Cedric Paquette. It sparked the crowd. And soon enough, the rest of the Capitals followed.
With Tampa Bay on its heels — the Capitals outshot the Lightning 14-6 in the second period — Washington tied the game when Alex Ovechkin flipped a pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who snuck behind the defence and slipped a shot through goalie Vasilevskiy’s pads.
Based on the shot attempts, in which Washington more than doubled Tampa’s output, there should have had plenty more. Instead, Vasilevskiy held the fort. And with the score tied 2-2, it was Tampa that gained momentum.
“Coming into that third period, after what happened in the second, it was a 0-0 game in our mind,” said Stamkos. “You go win a period, you win a game.”
They did just that.
With 10 minutes remaining in the third period, the Lightning finally received the chance they were looking for when Eller took another penalty, this time for hooking. The Capitals managed to kill it — barely. Just as Eller had left the box, Alex Killorn gave the Lightning a 3-2 lead when he took a pass in front from Ondrej Palat and beat Braden Holtby with a backhand deke.
Anthony Cirelli added an empty-netter with two seconds left in the game.
“That was way too many,” Trotz said of Eller’s two costly penalties. “That’s on Lars and no one else.”
While the Lightning’s power play connected once again in this series, the Capitals went 0-for-4 on the man advantage. Much of that was Vasilevskiy, who was perfect in the final 24 minutes of the game. In the process, he might have singlehandedly changed the outcome of a series.
“We didn’t quite have the greatest game,” said Johnson. “I don’t think we were the better team for 60 minutes. But we got the win. Good teams find a way to win.”
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