It didn’t start well, after that puck dropped. The Washington Capitals were pushing, the sea of red behind them at Capital One Arena, as they played their first home game in the conference final in 20 years. The Lightning were reeling, yet again.
But they stabilized. They calmed. They scored.
The goal was a beauty, a screaming one-timer from Steven Stamkos from just beyond the left face-off dot, a power-play goal that asserted the one offensive piece that the Lightning had going to start the series, their ability to score with the man-advantage. It didn’t stop there, with another power-play goal to follow (1:50, second period) and, finally, a 5-on-5 goal (3:37, second). Suddenly, the Lightning were up by three goals on their way to a 4-2 win, and they are very much alive in the series.
“We believed all along,” Stamkos said. “We knew we weren’t good enough, and credit to them, they played really good hockey the first two games. We needed to make adjustments. We did that. We worked on it. The players went out there and did what we needed to do.”
By doing that, Tampa Bay cut Washington’s lead in the best-of-7 series to 2-1, with Game 4 here Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
The Lightning gave notice that the series is not over, that they are capable of making the necessary adjustments, that their stars have led them here, and their stars will lead them where they hope to go.
It was all Stamkos (one goal, one assist) and Nikita Kucherov (one goal, one assist) and Victor Hedman (one goal, two assists) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (36 saves on 38 shots). It was the big names, the big players, who were there in the biggest of moments.
“It’s nice to perform at this time of year,” Stamkos said. “You always want to step up. We knew we needed a desperate game from our group today, and we got it.”
They got adjustments too, including a new linemate for Stamkos and Kucherov (Ondrej Palat replaced J.T. Miller) and a commitment to checking and passes that met their marks and a goaltender who was on his game and a defense that allowed that goaltender to be on his game. They got what they needed.
Much of it came from Hedman.
It was Hedman who placed the puck perfectly for Stamkos on the one-timer. It was Hedman whose no-look pass found Kucherov for his power-play goal that made it 2-0, and Hedman himself who got the Lightning’s second even-strength goal of the series to make it 3-0 and give him his first goal of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“We’re obviously put in positions to produce, and we put that pressure on ourselves to lead the way every night,” Hedman said. “I think we got a tremendous group in that locker room, that everyone knows their role, they know what to expect every night. It’s not just us. It’s a team game.”
And it was a team win. But it was a win in which the Lightning needed to be led by those designed to lead, by those most able to do so.
“You think of Kucherov and Stamkos, those guys leading the charge when we’ve needed them in the big games — so say Game 4 in the Boston [Bruins] series, Game 4 in the [New Jersey Devils] series, Game 3 in the Washington series,” coach Jon Cooper said. “Those guys have delivered when we’ve needed them. Oftentimes, that’s what those guys do, they come in when you need them.”
And, ultimately, that was the biggest adjustment: The right players in the right places to do the right things. That was the idea behind the line changes, the idea behind making alterations — not of personnel, but in the arrangement of that personnel — ahead of a game that was crucial.
“We needed to put guys in positions to succeed,” Cooper said. “We probably needed to spring a little life into our group. … You have to make adjustments at some point to give your team [what] you feel is its best chance to succeed.”
They had the life they needed. They had the production they needed. They had, at the end of the night, the win they needed, courtesy of the offense from the stars that they so desperately needed. They had Stamkos and Kucherov and Hedman and Vasilevskiy. That, on Tuesday, was enough.
Enough, at least for one night.
“Very happy with the way we played from start to finish,” Hedman said. “But we can’t pat ourselves on the shoulder. We’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s just one game.”
Stanley Cup Playoffs Conference Final Coverage