TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—The smallest guy on the ice came up big again for Tampa Bay.
Martin St. Louis, listed generously at 5-foot-9, 181 pounds, had a goal and an assist Friday night as the Lightning beat the Washington Capitals 2-1 to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series.
“He’s got the heart of a 6-foot-6 guy. You know what the players think of a guy like that,” teammate Brad Lukowich said after Tampa Bay’s third straight victory in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference matchup.
“He’s invaluable. We don’t look at him as a small guy. The way he plays, he has a big man’s game.”
St. Louis, a first-time All-Star this season, has teamed with Vincent Lecavalier and Vinny Prospal to score Tampa Bay’s last nine goals—all four in Game 3, all three in Game 4 and both Friday night.
The Lightning, once a doormat franchise making its first postseason appearance in seven years, can win a series for the first time in the team’s 11-season history by taking Game 6 Sunday in Washington.
Game 7 would be here Tuesday night.
“Obviously we’re on a little high right now,” St. Louis said. “You’ve got to calm down quick, because Sunday is going to come very fast. This is as big a win as anything experienced here. But there’s a bigger one coming. That’s the most important one.”
St. Louis, who has four goals and three assists in the last three games, scored off a perfect pass from defenseman Stan Neckar to put the Lightning ahead for good with 8:07 remaining.
Prospal, assisted by St. Louis, scored in the first period. Nikolai Khabibulin had 22 saves as Tampa Bay became the first home team to win in the series and pushed the Capitals to brink of yet another postseason collapse.
Washington, which won the first two games, has blown a two-game lead in the playoffs three times since 1992. Goaltender Olaf Kolzig is 1-4 in postseason games when the Capitals face elimination.
“It’s very frustrating. But at the same time, we’ve got to stay positive. This group of guys can win games,” Capitals right wing Dainius Zubrus said. “I have all the confidence in everybody here that we can win two more games and move on.”
The third-seeded Lightning were all but counted out after losing the first two games at home. But the Southeast Division champions regrouped to win Games 3 and 4 in Washington, and played so well on the road trip that coach John Tortorella tried to maintain the momentum by keeping the night-before-game road routine.
So, the Lightning stayed at a hotel Thursday night instead of sleeping in their own beds. What effect that had is open to debate; however Tortorella is not one to tinker when things are going well.
Tampa Bay led 1-0 despite getting off only three shots in the opening period—none in the first 12 minutes.
The sixth-seeded Capitals managed only five shots in the third period, though, and Khabibulin made his biggest stop when he rejected Sergei Berezin’s shot with under a minute left.
Tampa Bay scored its first goal by taking advantage of a four-minute penalty on Kolzig for high-sticking Lecavalier after the goaltender accidently hit the Tampa Bay center in the face after clearing the puck from behind the net.
Washington coach Bruce Cassidy said it shouldn’t have been a penalty.
“Rule 61, page 122 says that if a player shoots, he’s allowed a windup or follow-through. On accidental contact, it’s no penalty,” Cassidy said.
“It’s a call that, to me, a referee didn’t know the rule, and that frustrates you. Judgment calls you have to live with, you move on. … But that’s a rule that’s in the rule book and the referee should know that rule. It’s automatic and there should be no call.”
The Capitals killed the first half of the penalty, but the persistent Lightning eventually made them pay. St. Louis fed Prospal, who scored with 6:08 left in the opening period.
It was the first lead by a home team in the series.
The power-play goal was just the second in 19 opportunities for the Lightning, who were 1-for-3 in those situations Friday night.
The Lightning are trying to become the 22nd team since 1990 to overcome a two-game deficit to win a best-of-seven series. … Lightning defenseman Jassen Cullimore received 70 stitches in the lower lip and chin after being checked by Zubrus in the final minute. … Tampa Bay LW Andre Roy was a healthy scratch. He didn’t make the trip to Washington for Games 3 and 4 after his postwhistle roughing penalty led to a Capitals power-play goal in Game 2. … Returning home for Game 6 may not be good for the Capitals: Washington has lostnine of its last 11 home playoff games.