The NHL playoffs gave us two exciting Game 7s to close out first-round action. The Washington Capitals exorcised at least some of their playoff demons with a 2-1 win over the New York Islanders, and the Tampa Bay Lightning knocked out the Detroit Red Wings with a tough 2-0 win that wasn’t sealed until a late empty-net goal. Here’s a look at how the Caps and Lightning won their series…
WASHINGTON OVER NY ISLANDERS IN 7
Game 5 is the one that stands out. In a series marked by closely contested games, the Capitals blew the fifth game open early with a 5-1 win. You can make the case that this is simple–the tight games, the ones where a wayward bounce of the puck can decide it–split down the middle and Washington was the winner of the one game that was clearly decided. I wouldn’t dispute that, but there are some explanations that go a little deeper.
*Alex Ovechkin has been maligned for his playoff performances over the years and not without justification. Ovechkin scored one of the most important goals of his career when he tied up Game 2. The Islanders had taken the opener and then held leads of 2-0 and 3-1 in the second game. Ovechkin’s goal set the stage for the game-winner and the series was on.
*Braden Holtby, the Caps’ goalie, was spectacular in the middle games at Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders got the better of play, and by a lot, in Games 3 & 4. But Holtby’s brilliant performance in net helped his team gain a split of 2-1 overtime decisions and kept it a series.
*Evgeny Kutzenov was the hero of the decisive stretch in this series. He scored twice and had an assist in the Game 5 rout, a fruit of an aggressive game where he unleashed seven shots. Then in Tuesday night’s seventh game, with the game tied 1-1 in the third period and tensions in the Verizon Center unbearable, Kutzenov came through. He made a beautiful move, skating right to left to get around the defense and create a shooting angle. Even with his body moving away from the net, he put in the winning goal.
*The Washington defense left a lot to be desired through much of the series, with Holtby bailing them out. Game 7 was the opposite. The Caps’ defense was in lockdown mode. They only allowed 11 shots on goal and should have a shutout had Holtby not let in an absurdly cheap game-tying goal that seemed ready to add to the distressing history of Caps fans in the playoffs. This was the game where Holtby’s teammates paid him back for the middle games.
TAMPA BAY OVER DETROIT IN 7
It was another series where the simple explanation can work. In Game 4, Detroit led the game 2-0 in the third period and was ready to lead the series 3-1. Tampa Bay rallied, tied it, and then stole a game in overtime they had no business winning. Forget any talk about momentum–the Red Wings bounced back and won Game 5–and just focus on simple math. You can’t give a game away in a series this close. It boiled down to requiring the Red Wings to effectively beat the Lightning five times instead of four and that proved to be too much .
*Tyler Johnson was one of the best offensive players in the entire first round, scoring two goals apiece in his teams’ wins in Games 1, 4 and 6. Steven Stamkos, the great goal scorer, didn’t make a huge impact on this series, but he was either aggressive in putting shots on goal or dishing out assists to teammates.
*Ben Bishop is one of the league’s best goaltenders, but also lacked playoff experience. We saw both sides of Bishop in this series. He was awful in the three games his team lost, including losing the opener in spite of facing only 14 shots on goal. He was brilliant in victory, especially in Game 7 when he had 31 saves and repeatedly staved off the Red Wings.
*And defensively, we’ve got to give a shoutout to Tampa for containing Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg. The proud Red Wing forward had made his mark on his team’s last two first-round Game 7s, which were both road wins (Phoenix in 2010, Anaheim in 2013). Zetterberg barely made an impact on the series as a whole and was nowhere to be found in the decisive game.