- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2018

After his team dropped the first two games of the series, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said it looked like Alex Ovechkin was taking out a career’s worth of frustration in one postseason.

Not only did the Russian superstar have the Capitals deeper in the Stanley Cup playoffs than they’d been since he joined the franchise, Ovechkin was having his best postseason statistically since 2009.

A relaxed Ovechkin, his teammates said, was the difference.

“If we’re being serious here, I think getting past that second round is a relief for him,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Beating Pittsburgh was a huge deal for him.”

But for all of Ovechkin’s relief, he and the Capitals are again just one loss away from elimination. And this playoff exit, should it happen, would constitute an unprecedented collapse.

To avoid becoming the first NHL franchise in history to fail to advance after winning the first two games on the road of a conference or Stanley Cup finals, the Capitals need two wins — one at home and another on the road.

Up 2-0 at one point, Washington has now lost three straight, including Saturday’s defeat in Tampa. On Monday, Washington has to prove it can win at home — where the Capitals are 3-5 this postseason.

“Our team this year definitely wasn’t a Cinderella story, but for being a division winner, we had to claw our way most of the season,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Things didn’t always go our way, and I think we can draw from that for what’s upcoming.”

Carlson said the Capitals have to be ready from the start, which was a problem on Saturday. They allowed a goal with less than a minute gone in each of the first two periods.

The Capitals also have to solve Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has become the latest netminder to torment Washington in the playoffs. Vasilevskiy has stopped 94.74 percent of the Capitals’ high-danger chances during five-on-five play.

To put that number into perspective, Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury — remember him? — leads the postseason in high-danger save percentage, with 92.99, among goalies who have played at least 200 minutes.

Simply put, Vasilevskiy is getting hot at the wrong time for the Capitals.

Ovechkin, meanwhile, has been limited as the series has progressed. While he finally scored Saturday with less than two minutes left, he went 50 minutes without recording a shot on goal.

Cooper has adjusted to Ovechkin by trotting out a physical fourth-line and by shading him on the power play.

“They blocked a lot, he missed a lot,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “He had six missed shots, so we’ve got to hit the net a little bit, too.”

The Capitals have arguably outplayed the Lightning. They hold a +1 goal differential and lead 175-121 in shots. Game 4, in particular, was frustrating for Washington — dominating for long stretches of the night with only two goals to show for it.

Still, the Capitals have shown this year they can be especially dangerous with their backs to the wall. They faced a 0-2 hole in Round 1 and gutted out a double-overtime win against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 3. The Capitals responded to 2-2 series tie against Pittsburgh and took the next two.

“This group seems to never do anything really easy,” Trotz said. “They have responded all the time. That’s the grace in it all. … They do find another level. We’ll have to do that next game.”

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