The Bolts broke out to a 3-0 lead Tuesday night, weathered the inevitable push back by a Caps team playing in front of their home crowd for the first time in the series and secured the win with a critical fourth goal and a concerted effort to defend over the final 20 minutes.
The Lightning can level the series 2-2 with another win in D.C. on Thursday.
Asked what changed for Tampa Bay in Game 3 from Games 1 and 2, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper was succinct.
“We checked. That was it,” he said.
The Bolts did a number of other positive things in Game 3 to get back in the series and perhaps change the tide. Here were the most important.
1. PLAYING WITH A LEAD
Before his team took off for Washington, D.C. on Monday, Cooper told the reporters assembled at the jet center his team needed to play with the lead for once in the series.
Sure, the Lightning had a brief lead in Game 2 from about the midpoint of the first period to early in the second. But that wasn’t long enough to get the Capitals out of their game. Cooper felt if the Lightning could score the opening goal for a change and hold that lead for a meatier length of time, the Caps would take more chances to try to get back in the game, leaving themselves open for the Bolts to attack.
The Bolts heeded Cooper’s message in Game 3, worked hard to net that first tally and the coach’s prediction came true. .
Nearly 14 minutes into the contest, Steven Stamkos ripped a one-timer from his trademark spot in the left circle, beating Washington goalie Braden Holtby over the left shoulder to quiet the raucous crowd and put the Lightning ahead 1-0.
“We knew we had to weather the storm there,” Stamkos said. “They were going to be excited coming back and playing in front of their fans. I thought the first five minutes, (Andrei Vasilevskiy) made some big saves and kind of settled down and we got that power-play goal and got some confidence from there, moved it around really well. Obviously, nice to see that one go in.”
The Bolts held that lead into the second period and then extended it early in the middle frame on Nikita Kucherov‘s patented right circle one-timer at 1:50, Tampa Bay’s two snipers in the circles creating havoc for the Caps’ penalty killers.
Just 1:47 after Kucherov put the Lightning up 2-0, Victor Hedman pushed the lead to three goals with his score on a wide-open net after Kucherov did most of the heavy lifting to get Hedman a free look in the slot.
“The big thing for us is, and I think it’s worked I guess in the three games, the team that gets the lead is the team that’s in the driver’s seat,” Cooper said. “You’ve got to make them chase the game. Maybe they play a little different. That was big for us. I know we had the lead for a brief part in Game 2, but to get the multiple goal lead was a big thing for us.”
2. POINT WITH THE MOMENTUM CHANGER
When former Lightning first round draft pick Brett Connolly scored from the left dot to cut into Tampa Bay’s lead at the midpoint of the second period, the home crowd, which had almost been pleading with its team to do something positive up to that point, got back in the game in a hurry.
The Caps, in turn, fed off the energy and generated a few waves of scoring chances that got the crowd even more fired up.
When Ryan Callahan was whistled for roughing at 13:20, Washington’s fan base was frothing at the mouth, the crowd sensing the game was there for the taking for the Caps.
But the Lightning penalty kill, a touch-and-go subject all season for the Bolts, came up with its biggest kill of the series to date. During the kill, Ryan McDonagh blocked a shot with his hand and could do nothing more but hold it by his side and off his stick while the puck stayed in the Lightning end and the Caps tried to take advantage of the hobbled defenseman. McDonagh gutted it out, using his body to try to block while gripping the stick with just one hand and was finally able to get off after 20 seconds of not being able to use his hand when the Bolts cleared the puck.
“I can’t say enough about our penalty kill tonight and how it gave us momentum as well,” Stamkos said. “It was a great effort.”
Somehow, the Lightning survived that penalty.
And then Brayden Point swung momentum squarely back in the Bolts’ corner.
On a loose puck in the left circle and with a handful of players from both teams battling to try to get to it, Point was able to gain possession and thread a shot through the bodies to put one in the back of the net and re-establish the Lightning’s three-goal lead.
If Stamkos’ power-play goal to open the scoring was the game’s most important, certainly Point’s marker was the timeliest goal.
3. SWITCHING UP THE LINES
Cooper was adamant ahead of Game 3 there was no need for personnel changes, saying this group is the one that got the Lightning to this far and they would be the one to reverse the team’s fortunes in the series.
Besides, who could he bring in that would be able to do a better job than anybody already on the ice?
What Cooper didn’t tell was he already had an inkling of some line shuffling in mind to try to spark the Bolts offense, which had accounted for just one 5-on-5 goal entering Game 3.
Even during morning skate and again at pregame warmups, Cooper kept the lines status quo, perhaps as to not tip off the boss on the opposite bench about his plan.
But when the puck dropped, Cooper switched things up, moving Ondrej Palat up to the top line alongside Stamkos and Kucherov. Yanni Gourde jumped up to the second line with Point and Tyler Johnson. And J.T. Miller dropped down to the third line to partner with Alex Killorn and Tony Cirelli.
The fourth line remained unchanged.
Tampa Bay scored two 5-on-5 goals, doubling its output from the first two games, and the Lightning gave Washington head coach Barry Trotz something to think about as the teams prepare for a critical Game 4.
“We needed to put guys that in spots and positions to succeed,” Cooper said. “We probably needed to spring a little life into our group. It’s been a heck of a run with – we really haven’t changed our lineup at all in getting to this point. But you have to make adjustments at some point to give your team what you feel is it’s best chance to succeed. It just happened to work out for us.”
The Lightning had used the same lines throughout the playoffs and for a large portion of the regular season, particularly down the stretch.
It will be interesting to see if the coaching staff decides to stick with the winning combinations from Game 3 on Thursday, or if they’ll revert back to their old lines.
Either way, Cooper has plenty of options at his disposal to work with.