TAMPA, Fla. — The thing about playing on home ice is that it only becomes an advantage if you give the crowd something to cheer about.
That didn’t happen in the first four games of the Eastern Conference final, when the visiting team played the role of the unruly party crashers by making a mess and leaving. As Brooks Orpik had said, “it seems like home-ice advantage is becoming less and less of a factor.”
And then in Game 5, Tampa Bay took back its home.
The game was 19 seconds old when fourth-line forward Cedric Paquette stole the puck off the Washington Capitals’ top line and gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead. It was the hockey equivalent of showing an unwanted guest the door. And it set the tone in a 3-2 win that put Tampa Bay one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup final.
The best-of-seven series now shifts back to Washington for Game 6 on Monday, where the Capitals will try to hold serve in a conference final that seems to have got away from them.
At one point, it was Washington that had Tampa Bay on the ropes after winning the first two games on the road. But three straight losses have put Alex Ovechkin and Co. in a familiar position where they simply could not finish off their opponent.
For most of this series, it had been the name players and superstars doing most of the damage. On Saturday, it was the grunts’ time to shine.
The Lightning not only received goals from Paquette and Ryan Callahan — their first and second of the playoffs, respectively — they received them in the opening minute of the first and second periods. Even more impressive, they also did it while Ovechkin was on the ice.
If the crowd was looking for a reason to be engaged, this was it.
In Games 3 and 4, the Lightning arguably stole wins on the road thanks to a very potent power play and the heroics of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. This time, the Lightning deserved everything it got.
For once, Tampa Bay was the better team at five-on-five. Its forwards were too fast and too relentless for Washington to handle. After 10 minutes, the score was 2-0. By the 20:33 mark, the Capitals had dug themselves a 3-0 hole that was too deep to get out of.
Seconds after the opening faceoff, Paquette pressured Washington’s Dmitry Orlov into coughing up the puck to teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was stripped of the puck by Callahan before passing it back to Paquette for the game’s first goal.
Tampa Bay wasn’t done. In what was their most dominant period of the playoffs, the Lightning outshot the Capitals 13-4 and scored again when Orlov gave the puck away to Nikita Kucherov, who then found Ondrej Palat. Using a Washington defenceman as a screen, Palat beat Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby with a shot that he might not have seen.
The second period started the same as the first. Except this time it took the Lightning 33 seconds to score.
Once again, the Lightning put out their fourth line against the top line. And once again, hard work prevailed over skill. Defenceman Anton Stralman started off the play by driving the puck to the net. He was stopped, but Callahan crashed the crease and batted in the rebound.
Down 3-0, the Capitals started to play their best hockey. They outshot the Lightning 12-5 in the second and finally got on the board at 4:21 when Kuznetsov redirected a point shot from Matt Niskanen. With the goalie pulled and an extra attacker on the ice, they made it a one-goal game on a slap shot from Ovechkin with 1:36 remaining.
Ultimately, the comeback fell short. The was it’s looking right now, so too might be Washington’s hopes of reaching the final.
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