- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2018

TAMPA — Alex Ovechkin lifted his arms in celebration before the rest of the arena could fully digest what had happened. The Capitals star rifled home a one-timer past Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy — seconds after Tampa Bay had its own goal erased for having too many men on the ice.

It was the type of break that the Capitals — playoff baggage and all — would normally be on the other side of.

But this is the Eastern Conference Finals, and Ovechkin and the Capitals are determined to write a new postseason ending this time.

On Friday, they took the first step — blasting the Lightning 4-2 in a Game 1 victory at Amalie Arena. The Capitals, who are in the third round for the first time in 20 years, now lead 1-0 in the best of seven series.

“You can see when we play smart, we play simple, it’s total commitment now in our game,” Ovechkin said.

Ovechkin’s goal made it 2-0 with 2.8 seconds left in the first period. Just moments earlier it looked as though Washington was about to head into the locker room with the game tied.

Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov put a puck in the back of the net with seven seconds remaining. But the goal was negated by Tampa having an extra man on the ice, giving the Capitals’ their own power play.

With Tampa Bay down a player, Ovechkin received the puck in open space and scored to cap off the wild sequence.

“It’s a big momentum shift coming back in here,” defenseman John Carlson said. “The crowd was kind of stunned a little bit.”

The Capitals wouldn’t let its good fortune go to waste, either. Shortly in the second period, center Jay Beagle added another goal in front to make it 3-0.

Make no mistake, this was a commanding performance from the Capitals.

They locked down the top-seeded team in the East by taking away its speed, for most of the game. Before the series started, forward Lars Eller said the Capitals would have to keep the Lightning from creating space from the neutral zone. Tampa is a team that thrives with their legs and is stacked with scorers.

Tampa did not register a shot on goal until 10:53 in the first. They finished the period with two, and 21 total.

Even more impressive, the Capitals have remained defensively stout without center

Nicklas Backstrom, who missed his second straight game with an upper-body injury. But the Capitals knew how disciplined they would have to be on defense, in part, because of their 2-1 win Monday in Pittsburgh. In Game 6, the Capitals finished checks and managed the puck, while missing three of their top six forwards.

The Capitals didn’t suffer an emotional hangover from beating the Penguins.

“We’re playing the full 200 feet that you need to play at playoff time,” coach Barry Trotz said. “You’re getting the goaltending you need and you’re getting the commitment and you’re getting the work ethic and you’re getting the discipline and detail. All those things combine, you have a chance every night if you do that.”

Offensively, the Capitals took advantage of the power play, something the Lightning have had trouble stopping all season. Tampa Bay entered the night killing just 74.2 percent of penalties in the playoffs, and ranked 28th in the regular season.

The Capitals went 2-of-4 on the power play. Eller knocked in a rebound midway through the second to make it 4-0 for the Capitals.

Tampa benched Vasilevskiy at the end of the second, replacing him with Louis Domingue.

The Capitals got on the board in quiet fashion. Defenseman Michal Kempny flicked a puck near the top of the blue line, and it landed in, way in the back of the net because of the traffic created in front.

This series, however, is far from over. The Lightning lost 6-2 in Game 1 of the second round against the Boston Bruins, and Tampa went on to win the series, 4-1.

Washington, too, found out how lethal Tampa’s speed could be when Steven Stamkos blitzed a one-timer past Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. Forward Ondrej Palat made it 4-2 with 6:57 left. Both goals were the result of sloppier play in the third.

“This time of year, every game is harder,” Holtby said. “You’ve got to have more commitment in those areas. In Game 2, obviously, we know will be our hardest game of the year yet. We’re looking forward to that challenge.”

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