Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals overcame a major hurdle by reaching the Eastern Conference final.
Just like that, they’re in a full-on sprint toward the finish.
The Capitals scored in the opening minute of the game and twice in the last 1:02 of the second period Sunday night to pull away to a 6-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning and a 2-0 lead in the East final.
“It’s huge, but it’s not over yet,” Ovechkin said. “We played hard and played smart. You can see all four lines doing their job.”
Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller each had a goal and two assists. Ovechkin and Tom Wilson had a goal and an assist apiece for the Caps, who took the first two games of the best-of-seven matchup on the road. Since 1974-75, teams that take a 2-0 lead in the conference final or semifinal have a series record of 39-2 (95.1 percent).
“We didn’t panic — just stayed to the system and played the right way,” Ovechkin said. “We stayed calm and waited for our opportunities.”
Devante Smith-Pelly and Brett Connolly also scored, helping Washington improve to 7-1 on the road this postseason. It’s the team’s first visit to the conference final during Ovechkin’s 13-season career.
“You’re on the road and it’s us against them, and this group has really bonded,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “They’ve got a lot of resiliency, and they’re having fun.”
Game 3 is Tuesday night in Washington.
The Lightning had the best record in the Eastern Conference this season and breezed through the first rounds of the playoffs against the Devils and the Boston Bruins.
Little has gone right against the Capitals.
“For a team that’s been used to being able to make some plays, we sure haven’t made them in these two games,” Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s very uncharacteristic of us. That’s the difference. They’ve made plays, we haven’t. And it’s cost us.”
He added: “We’ve just played tentative and a little bit slow. We didn’t get 113 points by playing that way. We didn’t win the first two rounds by playing that way. For some reason for two games, that’s the way we’ve played.”
Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos had early power-play goals for Tampa Bay, which rebounded after falling behind on Wilson’s goal 28 seconds into the game.
Smith-Pelly’s one-timer finished an odd-man rush and made the score 2-2 at 2:30 of the second period. The Caps took control when Eller scored with 1:02 remaining and Kuznetsov — with assists from Ovechkin and Eller — delivered on a power play less than a minute later.
Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was called for tripping Andre Burakovsky with 10 seconds left in the period. Kuznetsov scored seven seconds later to make the score 4-2, the second time in the series the Caps stunned the Lightning with a power-play goal in the closing seconds of a period.
Ovechkin and Connolly finished the rout with third-period goals. Braden Holtby stopped 33 of 35 shots to improve to 10-3 this postseason.
“We’ve defended this entire playoffs up until these last couple of games, and that’s why we’ve had success,” Stamkos said. “We haven’t defended with the same urgency. We’re leaving our goalie out to dry.”