After winning the Presidents’ Trophy two years in a row by finishing with the best record in the NHL, the Washington Capitals were supposed to struggle this season — at least according to many hockey luminaries. The Caps had their chance at the Stanley Cup, the theory went, but with significant offseason departures and stars like Alex Ovechkin turning another year older, the 2017-18 season could have ended in a whimper.
“I view it as a two-year window,” general manager Brian MacLellan said of the Capitals’ chance of winning the Stanley Cup during the 2015-2016 season. “We’re going for it this year, we’re going for it next year, and then after that we’re evaluating where we’re at.”
So where are the Capitals three seasons later? The Eastern Conference Final. And now they’re up 1-0 in the series, a mere three wins away from the franchise’s second Stanley Cup Final appearance.
“It doesn’t take much to get up for these ones,” Tom Wilson, who returned to action Friday following a three-game suspension, told NHL Network after the game. “There are four teams left.”
Tampa, which has made it to the NHL’s Final Four three out of the last four seasons, is a formidable opponent. They finished atop the Eastern Conference standings in the regular-season and get a chance to even the series on home ice on Sunday before the series moves to DC.
“It was nice to beat the Pens, but we’ve got work to do left,” Wilson said. “We’re gonna keep going here.”
Friday’s 4-2 victory over the Lightning was sublime — most of the time. At almost every turn in the first two periods, the Capitals had an answer for the Bolts.
“That’s a pretty good recipe to win,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said of the Capitals’ play.
The Capitals, sans their elite injured center Nicklas Backstrom, tilted the ice in the first two frames. They were credited with nearly 60 percent of the shot attempts during that timeframe. The Lighting managed a meager two shots on goal in the first period and ended the first 40 minutes of the game with only 10.
“That’s a good hockey team over there who outplayed us tonight,” Stamkos said.
The Caps, with the game’s result seemingly assured, put forth a sloppy effort in the third period, but hung on for the victory.
“We know how we have to play and we have to play that way for 60 minutes,” Jay Beagle said. “They’re a dangerous group.”
When Tampa needed a goal late, they could not find it. Washington did not allow a shot on goal in the final three minutes of the game.
“Our guys are doing good, but we know they’re going to come out even harder next game,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “We need to play an even better game.”
Headline photo: Bruce Bennett
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