- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Jay Beagle was collateral damage.

As Capitals winger Devante Smith-Pelly charged forward at full speed, he unleashed a punishing hit on Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi. Directly behind the two, Beagle — just trying to play the puck behind the net — was sent crashing to the ice, along with Girardi. 

“I apologized to him,” Smith-Pelly said. “I didn’t see him until — well, I saw him coming flying out of the other side. … He didn’t seem to care. He’s all good.”

It wasn’t hard to grasp why Beagle understood. After all, Smith-Pelly was doing what was necessary to keep the Capitals alive in the Eastern Conference final.

Washington delivered hit after hit Monday in a 3-0 win to force a Game 7. By the end of the night, the Capitals led 39-19 in hits — having pushed, clawed and scrapped with practically every white Lightning jersey in the proximity of the puck.

Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik pinpointed a simple reason for the physicality: desperation.

“You know if you don’t win here tonight you’re not moving on, so you try to empty the tank as much as you can,” Orpik said. “That’s probably one area where we have an edge is the size and physical play, and over the course of a seven-game series it’s something we talked about.”

From the very start, the Capitals set the tone with a number of crunching hits. Star Alex Ovechkin was a force — using his sturdy 6-foot-3 frame to slam Lightning players into the boards or off the puck.

Ovechkin was one of five players on the Capitals to finish with at least four hits.

Near the end of the first period, Orpik threw off his gloves to fight with Lightning forward J.T. Miller. The two squared up and exchanged a few punches before the referees quickly pulled the plug.

The Capital One Arena crowd, meanwhile, loved the toughness — cheering loudly on each slam and thud.

“Really good energy, not only in our room, this morning, but tonight great energy in the building,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “Fans weren’t apprehensive. We gave them something to cheer about.”

Trotz said leaders like Orpik, forward T.J. Oshie and center Nicklas Backstrom were very determined, making sure there was “no doubt” they were going to force a Game 7.

Tampa Bay, on the other hand, didn’t match the intensity. Coach Jon Cooper said his team was “no good,” citing the differential in hits as an indication they weren’t engaged. “We didn’t play with the near-desperation they did,” he said.

In the playoffs, teams typically tend to become more physical. The Capitals, for instance, were averaging 31.58 hits per game in the playoffs before Game 6, compared to 21.75 during the regular season.

Washington’s 39 hits were a series high against the Lightning, and that allowed them to control the puck more often.

Tampa Bay defensemen like Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh log heavy minutes. That’s why, Smith-Pelly said, it’s important to wear them down, making it harder to play on every shift.

“We’ve been on the body all game and all series,” Smith-Pelly said. “If it shows up in Game 7 where guys are starting to get tired, then it was all worth it.”

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