The difference between a good penalty kill and a disastrous penalty kill hinges on the goaltender. Last night, the Lightning made out like bandits on their power play, tallying two goals, but they also survived the Capitals’ three man-advantage opportunities. In each of those two-minute intervals, Andrei Vasilevskiy was spectacular, making several incredibly difficult saves look routine due to his positioning and rebound control.
By naturalstattrick.com’s count, the Capitals collected four Scoring Chances and 16 shot attempts. Watching Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alexander Ovechkin crank shots on the net left one queasy, maybe even asking for divine interference. The 16 shot attempts on the Capitals’ power plays are noteworthy. While Vasilevskiy made several great saves, the Lightning’s defensemen should be applauded for multiple gutsy shot blocks. (Ryan McDonagh’s hand save was delightfully insane.)
After two woeful games, an alteration was needed. Coach Jon Cooper modified the Lightning’s forward group, and the shakeup had positive effects. Ondrej Palat was a strong complement to Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov on the first line. On one shift, he had a prime scoring opportunity from the low slot off a give-and-go with Stamkos. And then later in the sequence, he provided needed support to Kucherov, retrieving the puck after No. 86 lost it. Palat’s retrieval offered Kucherov a second chance, and Kucherov slickly passed it to Victor Hedman, who giddily pelted the puck on the empty net. On that shift, Kucherov’s magical work with the puck and dancing would have been in harmony with Tchaikovsky in the background. Pairing Palat with Kucherov’s singular genius provides a nice measure of accountability for the latter.
The leader in 5v5 Corsi for and Scoring Chances was Brayden Point. The Capitals struggled to contain the speed and inexhaustible will that Point demonstrates when chasing and fighting for the puck. Point was paramount on the first-unit power play, replacing Alex Killorn in the middle, and it was Point’s burst to the puck to retrieve possession after Hedman’s shot that opened the door for Kucherov’s one-timer.
Point’s goal to put the Lightning up 4-1, where he belted the puck through the legs of Capitals forward Chandler Stevenson mid-battle, was significant. Point is the bedrock of this forward group at 5v5. He is emblematic of what the Lightning’s success looks like against Washington. That means using the cycle as a tool to neutralize the Capitals’ speed. In the offensive zone, Point is winning races to the puck and slaying the opponent in one-on-one battles. Even last night, Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde were scaffolding, accessories to his architecture. In the defensive zone, Point helps thrust the puck forward on breakouts when the Capitals keep it inside the blue line.
But the Lightning defensemen also deserve recognition for doing a far better job. They were connecting on their first passes on breakouts and on neutral zone regroups. They kept a tighter gap on entries and were far more successful boxing out after the first shot attempt. In the offensive zone, they were aggressive on pinches and co-conspirators on the cycle. The Capitals still generated a lot of shots, but the odd-man rushes evaporated and the lost puck-battles in the slot plummeted. This makes a lot of sense. When Tampa Bay’s forwards and defensemen are companions, supplementing the other in their respective bailiwicks, the Capitals don’t have the same entry points to seize on.
Last night, the Lightning forwards were present and mettlesome in transition defense, which allowed their defensemen to force more shots from long distance, and increase the number of dump-ins. The Lightning defense did a good job at staying in front of the Capitals, and finished their checks when the puck sputtered toward the boards.
One subplot that has emerged in this series is how the Capitals’ defensemen exploit the Lightning forwards when they race out to the point. Tampa Bay likes to sink really low and take away the lower half of the ice, but when the puck is moved to the point, the nearest Lightning skater is expected to challenge the opponent at the point and take away his time and space. What keeps happening is that the Capitals defensemen take advantage of a slightly out of control, accelerating Lightning defender and fake the shot and walk around him. How many times has Dmitry Orlov done this? And he hasn’t been the only one. One suggestion for the Lightning is: Don’t go for the full-length, diving shot block. The Capitals’ defensemen have the mobility to exploit the commitment to the block, and this suddenly changes the math and allows a free swing at the net for their puck-carrier.
Was last night a single event? Or is it a movement toward change? The Lightning are still depending on their power play too much, and watching Kuznetsov slice and dice the Lightning’s fourth line is worrisome. But if the effort is there, on offensive retrievals and to disrupt and defuse on defense, the Lightning can prevail.