PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference quarterfinal; Lightning leads 3-2.
Focusing entirely on one line defensively can be a recipe for disaster. That’s a chance the Washington Capitals may have to take.
The Tampa Bay Lightning look to follow their red-hot top forward unit to a fourth straight victory and a place in the Eastern Conference semifinals when they take on the Washington Capitals in Game 6 of their first-round series.
After his team was outscored 9-3 in losing the first two games of this series at home, Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella shuffled his lines for Game 3 and put Martin St. Louis on the top unit with Vincent Lecavalier and Vaclav Prospal.
Since that line was put together, the Lightning have won three straight games, with either St. Louis, Lecavalier or Prospal scoring each of the team’s nine goals in that span. The line has combined for nine goals and 14 points in three games.
“They put three very good players together, three guys who can skate and pass the puck so well, it’s not easy to stop those three,” Capitals star forward Jaromir Jagr said.
The unit was at it again in Game 5.
St. Louis set up Prospal’s first-period power-play goal, and he snapped a tie midway through the third period to lift Tampa Bay to a 2-1 victory and push Washington within one loss of elimination.
St. Louis is generously listed at 5-foot-9, 181 pounds.
“He’s got the heart of a 6-foot-6 guy. You know what the players think of a guy like that,” Tampa Bay defenseman Brad Lukowich said. “He’s invaluable. We don’t look at him as a small guy. The way he plays, he’s has a big man’s game.”
Though a Game 7 would be back in Tampa Bay on Tuesday, captain Dave Andreychuk knows his team would be wise to finish the series in Washington.
“It’s not as easy as it sounds to wrap this series up,” Andreychuk said. “This team is not going to lay down and die. Yes, we do have momentum, but they are going back to their building. Anything can happen in Game 7, so we have to try and close it out in Washington.”
As good as Tampa Bay’s top line has been, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin also has played a major role in the Lightning’s success.
In the past two games, Khabibulin has allowed two goals on 46 shots. That’s six less than he gave up on 52 shots in the first two contests.
“I thought Nik played good in the first two games,” Lukowich said. “But there’s good and then there’s Khabibulin-style. The last two games, he’s been playing Khabibulin-style.”
While Tampa Bay’s best players have been outstanding of late, Washington’s stars have been very quiet.
Jagr has no goals in the last three games and Peter Bondra has one goal and no assists in that span. Jagr and Bondra combined for four goals and eight points in the first two games of the series—both Washington wins.
The Lightning, a mostly mismanaged franchise during the past seven years before earning their first postseason appearance since 1996, are looking to win a series for the first time in the team’s 11-season history.
Washington needs a win Sunday to avoid blowing a two-game lead in a postseason series for the fourth time since 1992. The Capitals have lost six of seven series when trailing 3-2, and goalie Olaf Kolzig is 1-4 in games when facing elimination.
“Of course, it’s not a good situation, but it’s not over until it is over,” Jagr said. “I thought they were in a tougher situation than we are right now. They were down 2-0 and went into Washington, and they responded very well. Now it’s up to us how we are going to respond.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Lightning - 93 points; 3rd seed. Capitals - 92 points; 6th seed.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Lightning - St. Louis, 4 goals and 8 points; St. Louis and Dan Boyle, 4 assists; Lecavalier, 16 PIM. Capitals - Bondra and Michael Nylander, 3 goals; Jagr, 5 assists and 7 points; Brian Sutherby and Trent Whitfield, 10 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Lightning - Power play: 9.5 percent (2 for 21). Penalty killing: 80.0 percent (16 for 20). Capitals - Power play: 20.0 percent (4 for 20). Penalty killing: 90.5 percent (19 for 21).
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Capitals, 3-2. The Capitals won both home games in the series, and lost two of three at Tampa Bay. Jagr led Washington with four goals and seven points, while St. Louis and Lecavalier had four points apiece for the Lightning.