WASHINGTON – Down. Way down. Pretty much out. Pretty much given up for dead.
That's how the Lightning arrived in Washington for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final. It had lost the first two games. At home and badly.
There was nothing, not a darn thing, you could take from the first two losses to that led anyone to believe the Lightning had a chance in this series. You half expected the Caps to take the ice Tuesday night holding not sticks, but brooms to start sweeping. It seemed almost certain that the Lightning would be playing golf this weekend instead of hockey.
But Tuesday night, the Lightning did what it always does when things are most grim. Against the odds, and against predictions, it clawed its way back to life.
It might not win the series. Then again, it just might. This is for sure: the Lightning isn't about to go down without a fight.
We have a series again. More importantly, the Lightning is alive again thanks to a 4-2 victory over the Caps in Game 3.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, overwhelmed the first two games of the series, set the tone for this road win and answered doubters. #TBLightning #GoBolts #ALLCAPS @TB_Times @mjfennelly #TBLvsWSH https://t.co/8S1MqLeNNN— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 16, 2018
All the stars came out. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. The dynamic duo of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. The workhorse, Victor Hedman. And the kid, Brayden Point, who just might be the best player in all of these playoffs.
In a performance reminiscent of successful playoffs past, the Lightning showed the most foolish thing you can do is count it out, even when counting it out seems like the perfectly natural thing to do.
The Lightning isn't out of the woods yet. It still is down 2-1 in the series. Another big game in Washington awaits Thursday night.
But cancel those tee times. Tampa Bay is far from through playing hockey. In fact, when the Lightning went to bed Tuesday night after Game 3's gutsy victory, there was plenty of reason to feel good about itself.
Quite the change from when it woke up Tuesday morning.
The Caps were so dominant in the first two games that the Lightning's confidence had to be shaken. Yet, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said before Game 3 that his players weren't upset or even frustrated. He said they were angry.
And for the first time in the series, they played like it. Right from the get go.
"Every game you go out there and you want to have your best game,'' Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "Sometimes it doesn't pan out that way. Tonight, I thought we took a big step forward.''
It finally took a step forward in this series.
"Simple game,'' Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "We played a simple game.''
It played a good game.
Start off Vasilevskiy. Toasted for 10 goals in five periods in the first two games, the Lightning netminder was leaky enough that there were questions about whether he was out of gas or, at the very least, out of good saves. But he has rarely looked steadier, shutting down the Caps in a first period that could've buried the Lightning.
"He was great for us,'' Point said. "He always is. We never were worried about that.''
Vasilevskiy held the Caps scoreless long enough to allow the Lightning to get rolling. Taking advantage of two power plays, Stamkos and Kucherov ripped one-timers that Caps goalie Braden Holtby likely only heard, but surely never saw.
By midway through the game, the lead was extended to 3-0 when Kucherov completely dominated a shift and set up Hedman for a wide-open goal.
That pretty much cinched it. When it was over, the Lightning's players had been its best players. Hedman had three points. Kucherov, Stamkos and Point had two each.
There were a couple of tense moments for Tampa Bay, but Point's huge goal late in the second period put the exclamation point on a huge Lightning victory.
"Our energy and our skating and we were able to come back and get above them,'' Point said. "Our intensity was just better.''
As Stralman pointed out, it's just one game. The Lightning still has more work to do. No time to exhale.
But it is alive. Alive and well just when it was close to being dead and buried.
Then again, this is what the Lightning does. It wins just when you count them out.
And that should be a surprise to absolutely no one.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones