WASHINGTON, D.C. — Entering Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final against the Capitals, the Lightning faced uncertainty in net.
Goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy had earned distinction as an All-Star and Vezina Trophy finalist, the NHL’s award for best goaltender, this season, but he had also allowed 10 goals in five periods through the first two games — and two Lightning losses — of the series.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper didn’t waver on his young goalie’s status — "He’s our guy," Cooper said before Tuesday night’s game at Capital One Arena — and Vasilevskiy delivered on his coach’s confidence. Vasilevskiy had 36 saves in the 4-2 win, stymieing the Capitals’ offensive power from the first two games and advancing the series to 2-1 to ensure the Lightning will return home at least one more time.
"It wasn’t really fair for him the first couple," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "We didn’t do a good job in front of him, so it was big. He played great, and I think he liked the fact that we played a good team game and had good structure and made his life a little bit easier."
Unlike the Game 1, when Tampa Bay pulled Vasilevskiy at the second intermission, or Game 2, when the net-minder was whistled for tripping and the subsequent power play led to a late second-period Capitals goal, Vasilevskiy found a rhythm early in Game 3.
The Capitals opened the game with a 14-10 shooting advantage in the first period. Washington controlled possession, often peppering Vasilevskiy with shots in spurts, while the Lightning didn’t record a shot until about seven minutes had elapsed.
But soon after, Steven Stamkos rocketed the Lightning’s first goal — a one-timer on a power play from the left circle — and Tampa Bay didn’t let up. The Lightning defense held the Capitals scoreless on three power plays, while converting two of its five man-advantages for an opening 2-0 lead.
"That’s just guys sacrificing their body for the team," center Brayden Point said.
Despite the Capitals holding a 38-23 advantage in shots on goal, Washington beat Vasilevskiy just twice.
Ondrej Palat turned the puck over in the Lightning’s defensive zone and Chandler Stephenson fed Tom Wilson for a score midway through the second period to make it 3-1. And Evgeny Kuznetsov netted an odd-angled attempt with about three minutes left.
By the time Kuznetsov scored, Vasilevskiy had already stopped Washington star Alex Ovechkin, who had two goals and two assists in the first two games of this series, several times in the final period. And the net-minder held tight as the Capitals went 6-on-5 in the final minutes after pulling goalkeeper Braden Holtby.
"We have so much confidence in (him)," Stamkos said. "Early in the game, he let us settle down, and when we’re up 4-1, your tendency is to sit back a little and they got some looks, but he was right there. Like I said, he’s been outstanding for us all year, and he was great tonight."