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  • Tampa Bay took the first home win in the Eastern Conference Final in Game 5 against Washington.
By Eric Single
May 19, 2018

The Lightning’s fourth line of Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette and Chris Kunitz has earned top billing of late, getting the nod for the opening faceoff from head coach Jon Cooper for three straight games. The way Game 5 went, don’t expect Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Tampa Bay’s other marquee superstars to complain about starting out on the bench.

Callahan set up the first goal and scored the game-winner as Tampa Bay took its first lead of the Eastern Conference Final with a 3–2 win over the Capitals, earning the Lightning a 3–2 series lead that forces Washington into an elimination game at home in Game 6 on Monday night. Callahan added a stiff hit on defenseman Brooks Orpik late in the third period that could have been a fitting microcosm of the night’s performance team-wide, but it was a perfect punctuation mark for the former Rangers star who has been relegated to grinder status yet continues to play an invaluable role on a team one win away from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

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“There’s a reason he’s worn a ‘C’ or an ‘A’ wherever he goes,” Cooper told reporters after the game. “He’s a team-before-self guy.”

Callahan’s line jumped on the Capitals’ top forwards on the first shift of both the first and second periods, tripling its goal total from Tampa Bay’s first 14 playoff games. On the defensive end, the trio played a key part in holding Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson in check until the final minutes.

“Especially tonight, matched up against a line like Ovi’s, your main focus is to keep the puck out of the net, but to have success you have to have all lines contributing in different ways,” Callahan told reporters. “Would we like to be on the scoresheet more than we have been in this playoffs? Absolutely, but when you’re not you gotta be doing other things to help contribute and help the team win.”

The Capitals’ bid to reclaim momentum in the series got off to a nightmare start, as two puck battles lost by defenseman Dmitry Orlov led to a pair of Lightning goals within the first 10 minutes. The initial strike came 19 seconds in at the hands of Tampa Bay’s fourth line, when Callahan pounced on Orlov’s neutral-zone turnover and outhustled Orlov for a sweep pass to Paquette, who fired home his first goal of the playoffs to ignite the Amalie Arena crowd. Then Orlov struggled to corral the puck on a bouncing Lightning clearance and was tripped up by Stamkos, who started an odd-man rush that ended with a long-distance Ondrej Palat wrister that beat Braden Holtby with 10:56 left in the opening period.

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“We were probably looking at an 8 o’clock start instead of a 7:15,” Washington coach Barry Trotz cracked to open his postgame press conference. “No, I just felt that we didn’t get going, and obviously they scored the first goal, first minute, and you’re a little bit on your heels right off the bat.”

The third goal came 33 seconds into the second period, when Callahan came crashing in for a follow-up to Anton Stralman’s net drive and was slammed by Ovechkin as he reached the crease, the puck banking in off his glove as he fell to the ice.

The Capitals’ Game 5 performance would have fit well within any number of playoff failures past, but set within this year’s run, in which their focus and effort have been largely consistent even in defeat, it was jarring to see them blown off their mark by the fourth line, even if the Lightning got to this point by getting all they can out of one of the league’s deepest lineups.

“You’re looking at the box score before tonight, you could say [the forwards on Callahan’s line] don’t have a lot of points, but what those guys bring to our team is inspiring,” Cooper said. “They’re heavy, they check, they’re on the right side of pucks, and one of the luxuries we have is it doesn’t matter who we put them on against, they’re dependable, and that’s what makes them valuable.”

Trailing by three goals, the visitors picked up their energy for a necessary push. Evgeny Kuznetsov got his stick on a Matt Niskanen rocket from the point to beat Andrei Vasilevskiy. Even before his rocket blast from just above the circle cut the deficit to one with 96 seconds left, Ovechkin played an aggressive, unencumbered game, winning puck battles and setting his teammates up for scoring chances. But the Capitals’ forwards combined for just three shots in the first 20 minutes—and one was a redirection of a blue-line blast that led to their first goal.

Those Washington stars have no choice but to play every shift in desperation mode on Monday night—and they will likely hop over the board to find a familiar trio in blue and white coming out to meet them, fresh off an offensive outburst of their own.

TBL leads series 3-2 | Full Recap | Box Score


HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT

The Capitals pulled Holtby in the final two minutes and sent a flurry of shots on net, but Lightning goalie Vasilevskiy did his best 2009 Marc-Andre Fleury impression with this clutch save on John Carlson to seal the deal.


THREE STARS

1. Ryan Callahan, TBL — Ready for a weird stat? Callahan has made the playoffs in nine of his 12 NHL seasons, and with Saturday’s game-winner he has scored exactly two goals in seven of those nine postseason runs. Tampa Bay certainly wouldn’t mind if he messed up that pattern by adding to his ledger next week.

2. Andrei Vasilevskiy, TBL — Vasilevskiy didn’t have to make any highlight saves until the final moments (see above), but on multiple prior occasions he shut chances down that could have escalated into something more dangerous and did not lose his composure as the Capitals chipped into his lead.

3. Alex Ovechkin, WAS — Sometimes the Capitals look significantly worse when Ovechkin plays heroball, taking matters into his own hands to a fault. On Saturday night, he provided a faint heartbeat for the forecheck and, along with Washington’s more aggressive defensemen, provided the brunt of the offensive pressure until the rest of the team found the right competitive gear.


LOOK AHEAD

Since the NHL’s inaugural 1917–18 season, the 1968 St. Louis Blues are the only franchise to make the Stanley Cup Final in their first year of existence. (They lost that series, and the next two Finals to close out the decade, under the direction of legendary coach Scotty Bowman.) But that run came in a different era, with the league less than half its current size and the playoffs slightly less grueling than the two-month marathon they are now. The Vegas Golden Knights can join that Blues team in hockey history by winning Sunday afternoon’s Game 5 in Winnipeg (3 p.m. ET, NBC), but their accomplishment would stand on its own among the most improbable sports outcomes of the decade, if not the 21st century.

To put the celebration on hold, the Jets will need to find a way to crack Marc-Andre Fleury, who is working on a three-game streak with at least 30 saves and leads all remaining goalies with a sterling .945 save percentage this postseason. The responsibility for that task falls to Mark Scheifele, who has posed the biggest defensive headaches for Vegas as any forward has this spring, with three goals in the first four games of the series. Scheifele sits on 14 goals, four clear of the pack for the playoff lead, and his top setup man Blake Wheeler is four clear of the pack for the assists lead with 18 in 16 games.

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