- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2018

TAMPA — As Nikita Kucherov was heading to the bench with less than a minute left in the Capitals’ 6-2 victory Sunday, the Lightning forward went out of his way and kicked Brett Connolly, causing the Capitals winger to stumble.

The action didn’t go unnoticed: Connolly turned around to confront him, but a referee’s whistle was quickly blown. Kucherov was handed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“They look like they’re frustrated a little bit over there,” Connolly said, later adding, “when you see Kucherov kind of kick me there, that’s what you want. You want their star players to be frustrated.”

After two commanding victories on the road, the Capitals have given the Lightning plenty of reasons to be frustrated.

Here’s a stat that best summarizes the position the Capitals are now in: teams have gone on to the win the series 95 percent of the time when taking a 2-0 lead in the third round of the NHL playoffs since the 1974-75 season.

Furthermore, only two teams — the New York Islanders in 1984 and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 — have managed to come back, down 0-2.

Simply put, the Capitals have a stranglehold over the series — and it now shifts back to the District for the next two games. Game 3 is Tuesday at 8 p.m.

But the Capitals know better than anyone how quickly a 2-0 lead can disappear. After losing the first two meetings in Round 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Capitals won four straight.

They have been in Tampa’s position, albeit in an earlier round.

“We’re off to a heck of a start, but we’ve got to take care of business at home here,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It’s all about Game 3. If they win one or two here, boy, the momentum switches big time, so we’ve got to take care of business.”

The experience,might help the Capitals keep their lead in perspective. Coach Barry Trotz said it was healthy to acknowledge how fast a series can change. Washington, too, barely avoided a 3-0 hole in Columbus —scoring a flukey goal in double overtime that was bounced off Lars Eller and into the net.

Since then, though, Trotz said his team has settled.

They’ve risen to the occasion — withstanding a blitz from the Lightning after coach Jon Cooper remarked his team treated Game 1 like it was Game 38 of the regular season. The Capitals are getting contributions from those new and old.

Without Nicklas Backstrom, who has missed three straight with a hand injury, center Lars Eller has taken on a bigger role, responding with arguably the best stretch of his career. Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelly — two cast-offs signed over the summer — were pivotal in Game 2.

And, of course, there are the rookies. Six of them have contributed this postseason, and five of them cracked the lineup for the deciding Game 6 in Pittsburgh.

“We had an actual competition for playing time this year at certain positions,” Niskanen said. “Guys embraced it, [and] that brought the best out in a lot of guys. We had to fight for it during the regular season this year. I think that created a lot of good habits for us and got the competitive spirit up rather than coasting into the playoffs.”

The veterans have produced, as well. Alex Ovechkin has scored 10 goals — his most since the 2009 playoffs. John Carlson has set a franchise record with most points by a defenseman. Goaltender Braden Holtby has been lights out, despite not getting the first two starts against Columbus.

Carlson said he likes the mentality of this year’s group. They’re less harsh, he said, on themselves than in the past.

“That’s kind of allowed us to hit the reset button when we need to, change the momentum of a game, or just not playing up to our standards and find a way to get a little bit better,” Carlson said. “I’d say it’s a little bit more laid back, and we’re having a lot of fun right now.”


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