WASHINGTON — The destination is the Stanley Cup Final, a place the Washington Capitals haven’t been in 20 years. The obstacle is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who entered Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals with a 3-2 series lead, having won three straight games.
How do the Capitals break through that obstacle to get to that destination? By transforming into a battering ram.
The Capitals played their most physical game of the series, registering 39 hits and wearing down the Lightning in a 3-0 victory to force a Game 7 on Wednesday in Tampa.
“That’s one area where we have an edge is our size and physical play. Over the course of a seven-game series, it’s something we talk about. Take those opportunities. Don’t get out of position. Try to wear them down when we can,” said Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, who tied with forward Tom Wilson with a game-high six hits.
“It’s desperation, really. If you don’t win tonight, you’re not moving on. So you try to empty the tank as much as you can.”
The hitting didn’t necessarily determine the victor — T.J. Oshie‘s power-play goal, two penalty kills against the Lightning and Braden Holtby‘s 24-save performance for his first shutout of the season were more paramount — but it did alter what the Lightning did, as some apprehension and choppiness entered their offensive game. It was symptomatic of the Capitals’ overall play in Game 6, which exhibited more energy, speed and determination than their opponents could muster.
Ryan Callahan of the Lightning said the Capitals’ desperation was as evident as the lack of it from his own team.
“They played like their lives were on the line, and we played like we had another chance, and that’s unfortunate,” he said.
The Capitals and Lightning played a chess match of a first period, and it ended in a stalemate. Orpik said that without a goal to keep the electric crowd engaged, Washington used big hits to make them roar. As usual, nothing pops a Capitals crowd like a huge effort from their captain. Although Alex Ovechkin didn’t register a point in Game 6, his seven shot attempts and physical play were tone-setters.
“He was huge,” said Devante Smith-Pelly, who scored the Capitals’ second goal. “He was flying around, he was finishing checks. He was skating hard, and when we see that and the crowd gets excited, we all feed off of it. He had a huge game, and although he didn’t get a point or a goal or anything like that, guys on the bench definitely were feeding off the way he was playing.”
In the Ovechkin era, the Capitals have fared well in elimination games that occur prior to Game 7, moving to 10-2 in that situation. Alas, they’re 3-7 in Game 7s. But this was an elimination game on home ice after losing three straight games to the Lightning. It was a situation ripe for the kind of inherent tension that can hang in the air at Capital One Arena during the playoffs, with a prevailing sense of dread that even the players can feel.
But there wasn’t an inkling of it in Game 6.
“The fans weren’t apprehensive. We gave them something to cheer about,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.
It isn’t just the fans that exude a different vibe than in previous postseasons. This Capitals team has shown a resilience that has been missing in previous incarnations during the Ovechkin era. Take, for example, their first-round rally from an 0-2 hole against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Or losing Game 1 against the Penguins but then closing out their first series win against Pittsburgh since 1994 without injured center Nicklas Backstrom or suspended forward Wilson. Or this Game 6, with their backs against the wall.
“This group has a lot of fortitude. They just do,” Trotz said. “We just keep taking whatever challenge is thrown at us and build off it. This group doesn’t waver. It has a spirit about it, a strong spirit. Going into Game 7, I don’t think I would want another — and I’ve been doing this for a while — I don’t think there’s a team I’ve ever had that I’d want to go into a Game 7 with.”
As for the Lightning, they’ll ice their bruises. They’ll thank their goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, whose 31-save performance was at least the second time in this series when he was their best player on the ice. And they’ll wonder how they can level up and match the Capitals’ intensity, physicality and desperation in a winner-take-all Game 7.
“Was it a fairly even game? There’s no question. But what were the hits? 39-19? Somebody was engaged, and somebody wasn’t. That’s a choice,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “You can spin this any way you want. You can sit here and say, ‘Look at Tampa. They were down 0-2, and they pushed it to a Game 7.’ Or you can say, ‘They blew a great opportunity to close this series out.’
“In the end, there is a Game 7. And it’s at home. And if you said to me, you only have to go 2-2 at home in this series, and you’re going to win it, we’ll take that. We took two on the road, and now we have to make sure we go home and take care of business. Shame on us if we don’t.”