Hold off on the obit: Lightning evens series with the Capitals

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stops a shot by Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom during the second period. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stops a shot by Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom during the second period. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Published May 17 2018
Updated May 18 2018

WASHINGTON –  And just like that, we're back to all square.

Wow, this Lightning team is something. Never dead. Never done.

Just a couple of days ago, Tampa Bay was hanging over the edge of the cliff, barely hanging on with a couple of fingertips. As we cued up the dramatic music and waited for its long fall to the crashing waves below, the Lightning did what it usually does in such bleak situations.

Like some hockey version of Indiana Jones, the Lightning triumphantly pulled its way back to safety and is now again eagerly searching for hockey's holiest grail.

The Lightning beat the Capitals 4-2 in Thursday night's Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final. That wrapped up back-to-back victories in the nation's capital to even this best-of-seven series at two games each.

Are you surprised?

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Now it's best of three, with the Lighting back to having home-ice advantage, starting with Game 5 on Saturday night at Amalie Arena.

Here's the thing: The Lightning had absolutely no business winning this game.

"We're happy with the victory. It doesn't matter how we get it,''  defenseman Victor Hedman said. "We tied it up 2-2, and that was our goal coming into this. We wanted to win both games, and we did that.''

The only reason the Lightning won Game 4 was because of an absolutely ridiculous performance by goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

"Wow, unbelievable,'' Hedman said. "What can you say?''

You can say that Vasilevskiy absolutely stole a game for the Lightning. Sometimes that's what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. You need a goalie to steal a game now and then.

"When you don't have your A game, you need your goalie to have his A game, and (Vasilevskiy) sure did,'' coach Jon Cooper said.

Tampa Bay was outshot 38-20 but pulled out the victory because the big Russian goalie stopped nearly everything thrown at him.

"Right from the start, we knew (he was on),'' forward Alex Killorn said.
" 'Vasy' saved us in that second period when (the Capitals) were kind of coming at us. He did a great job keeping us in it.''

At one point, the Lightning went 21 minutes without a shot. Through two periods it was being outshot 29-13. The score should have been 10-2 Caps. Yet it was tied 2-2.

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"Oh, I didn't think (Vasilevskiy) played very well tonight,'' Lightning captain Steven Stamkos joked. "Vasy was there to bail us out. That's why he is one of, if not the best goalie in the world."

None of this – from Vasilevskiy's performance to the Lightning winning – should come as a great surprise. This is what the Lightning has done in recent postseason history. It backs itself into a corner, losing games you never think it will lose, only to crawl out of danger.

Then it wins games just as unexpectedly. Well, scratch that. That's almost expected at this point.

Like this series. The Lightning lost the first two games at home. Neither of those games looked even a little bit competitive. Vasilevskiy looked a little leaky. The Lightning at even strength looked shorthanded. Everything that could have gone wrong for it pretty much did. All that was left was for the Lightning to turn on its blinker and turn off at the next exit.

But then it showed up in Washington like a brand new team.

The turnaround started with Vasilevskiy, who has been nothing but brilliant since the series shifted locations.

Meantime, the rest of the Lightning's best players – names such as Stamkos, Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point – have continued to be the Lightning's best players. Stamkos and Point had first-period goals as Tampa Bay overcame an early 1-0 deficit.

But the second period nearly sunk the Lightning.

"We knew we had better in us,'' Cooper said. "Basically, the way we played the second period was the way we played much of Games 1 and 2.''

That's why Cooper didn't light into his team after the second.

"There was no anger or anything going on in the (locker) room,'' Cooper said. "It was, 'Okay, let's take a breath here.' There's a reason we had success in the last game, and half (of that) is changing the way we played. And I thought the third period . . . we did (that).''

The Lightning did play well in the third, and as often happens, someone stepped up to play hero. That person was Killorn, who scored his first goal in 11 postseason games after scoring four in the first three games in the opening round against New Jersey. His nifty backhander beat Washington's Braden Holtby with 8:03 left in the third period to break a 2-2 tie. That goal  was the winner.

Tony Cirelli added an empty-netter with a mere two seconds left to cap an improbable victory.

So now the Lightning returns home tied at 2. It won a game. It stole a game. Call it whatever you want.

Just don't be surprised by it.

It's what the Lightning does.

Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.

Lightning 2 0 2 4

Capitals 1 1 0 2

First Period—1, Washington, Orlov 2 (Niskanen, Oshie), 4:28. 2, Tampa Bay, Point 7 (Johnson, Gourde), 5:38. 3, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 7 (Miller, Point), 8:32 (pp). Penalties—Eller, WSH, (holding), 7:27; Gourde, TB, (interference), 11:20; Hedman, TB, (slashing), 14:31; Kucherov, TB, (hooking), 17:56.

Second Period—4, Washington, Kuznetsov 10 (Wilson, Ovechkin), 5:18. Penalties—Hedman, TB, (tripping), 7:08.

Third Period—5, Tampa Bay, Killorn 5 (Palat, Sergachev), 11:57. 6, Tampa Bay, Cirelli 2, 19:58. Penalties—Eller, WSH, (hooking), 9:51. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 7-6-7—20. Washington 15-14-9—38. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 2; Washington 0 of 4. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 10-4 (38 shots-36 saves). Washington, Holtby 10-5 (19-16). A—18,506 (18,277). T—2:34. Referees—Gord Dwyer, Chris Rooney. Linesmen—Michel Cormier, Brian Murphy.