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NHL Playoff Game Night: 5-23-18 Capitals at Lightning

Soul searching time in the Lightning organization.

Eastern Conference Final

WSH-4
TB-0

Washington Wins the Series 4-3

Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed 3 goals on 22 shots for the loss. None of the three goals he allowed were soft, but in this moment he's got to make a big situational save on at least one of the Burakovsky breakaways to give his team a chance. This will be an interesting offseason for Andrei, who is renowned for his work ethic. He had an amazing first half, a subpar second half, and an uneven playoffs. It was altogether more good than bad, but I would think he's going to focusing on improving his consistency and some other minor fixes to his game like making sure he stays more upright when he goes down in the butterfly and making sure he consistently pushes out to cut down the angle on shooters.

First Period
1:02 WSH Ovechkin (12), (Kuznetsov, Wilson)

Second Period
8:59 WSH Burakovsky (1), (unassisted)
16:31 WSH Burakovsky (2), (Carlson)

Third Period
16:17 WSH Backstrom (4), (unassisted)

The simplistic thing to do would be to look at the 4-0 score tonight and say the team didn't show up. I already see some national talking heads doing just that on social media. The fact of the matter is that the Lightning were the victim of the cruel hand of the hockey gods at one of the most inopportune moments imaginable. They outshot the Caps 29-23 and I suspect outchanced them by a greater margin. Did they surrender a goal very early in the game? Sure. But that wasn't because of a flat start. Tip your cap to Ovechkin for being a sniper who can pound that shot off the rush without a ton of room to do so. And then tip your cap to Holtby for being able to hold out wave after wave of Lightning chances, even when Holtby himself had no clue where the puck actually was. The greatest frustration of all came in the Second Period, though, when I thought the team had clearly outplayed the Caps only to see Victor Hedman hit a post and Yanni Gourde whiff in front of a wide open net. A freak play by Dan Girardi having to drop a puck that was shot into his body in the neutral zone leading to one breakaway and then a bad defensive pair change leading to a second, and the game was over after two periods even though the Lightning had carried the balance of play. A three goal deficit is a death sentence in pro hockey after two frames, and especially so against a Barry Trotz coached trapping team. Another simplistic reading would be that the Lightning didn't put up a fight in the Third Period. The fact of the matter is you've got a better chance of slaying a Sasquatch than you do clawing back goals when you're that far behind playing against that trap.

What's the lesson we take from all this? Sometimes hockey's unfair. Just like life. More to the point, though, the Lightning actually no-showed Games One, Two, and Six of this series and had to have Vasilevskiy thieve Game Four for them. When you get to this stage of the season against the quality of teams you face in these moments, you can't spot teams games. A veteran laden team like the Lightning, with all their experience, should've known better. But, they mentally sagged after the triumph of slaying rival Boston in the previous rounds, and then checked out after fighting back to put Washington on the brink. These are painful breakdowns in leadership and mental discipline these players are going to have to live with the rest of their lives.

The Lightning organization now finds itself at a bit of a crossroads. It was the best of times, having been to the Eastern Conference Final or further three of the past four season, but it was also the worst of times having come up dry in the pursuit of a championship. Critical questions need to be asked throughout the building on Channelside, beginning with the question of whether this team is in danger of lapsing into the kind of "elite mediocrity" teams like the Caps and Sharks have been trapped in for what seems like a decade. No one can deny that Tampa Bay is a model franchise built to have more deep playoff runs well into the foreseeable future. But, are they constructed to win championships? Are some of the mainstay players on the roster now tainted with the stench of multiple postseason failures to get all the way over the hump? The coaching staff?

I'm not advocating a complete overhaul by any means. I suspect we will shortly learn that certain players like Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov who seemingly underperformed over the past few weeks have been hiding significant injuries that have to be weighed in the overall evaluation. But, at the end of the day, this Lightning organization is stocked to the gills with good young players in Syracuse and the junior ranks. A strategic and surgical scrambling of the roster to replace some of those crusty, stale mainstays with exciting new blood is a necessity both from a hockey and a financial standpoint. It's coming. It needs to happen. To put it bluntly, the window is closing on a lot of players who have been cornerstones of the past half decade here, and it shut completely on a few others. Harsh but true.

One other thing I want to mention tonight, only because it irks me for its parallels to the 2011 series against Boston. It frustrates me to no end that the referees made a decision over the past two or three games to completely swallow their whistles. Just as in 2011, it's as if they made a conscious decision that because Tampa Bay's power play was so lethal and therefore each power play had an outsized chance of impacting the outcome of the games that they just weren't going to call anything. "Letting the boys decide it," is an act of moral cowardice by the refs, and despite their thinking that they aren't making a choice by electing to swallow their whistles they are, in fact, choosing to disadvantage the team with the better power play. We saw Yanni Gourde get cross checked in the nose in the First Period in a scrum. No call. We saw Washington play with seven skaters on the ice for a while in the First Period. No call. We saw copious quantities of clutching and grabbing throughout this series that reached epidemic proportions in the first 40 minutes of this game. No calls. I'm not going to sit here and tell you the Lightning also didn't commit infractions that could've been called and weren't because of what the refs chose to do. But the fact of the matter is the Lightning outpossessed Washington by huge proportions for wide swaths of the First and Second Periods, most notably the first five minutes of the Second Period, and there's no way in hell Washington didn't commit a penalty in those spaces of time. A team like Tampa Bay is constructed for possession and to accrue the benefits from that possession that come in the form of, among other things, increased power play time. The decision by the refs, which is a gutless calculation designed to proclaim they didn't favor one team over another, favored the team built for clutching and grabbing that is better built for counter attacking (the Caps) over the possession-oriented team (the Lightning). And that's wrong. It was in 2011 and it is still wrong now.

Anthony Cirelli had 1 hit and was 33% on 6 draws in 13:03. He's become a solid, valuable player for this team and he's still a boy among men. He's got a lot to do to develop a pro body and to work on improving his burst and acceleration so he can dig down and find a top gear when he needs it. He's really smart and has a great work ethic, though, and he should be one of the future leaders of this team.

Box score and extended statistics from NHL.com.