WASHINGTON — They were damn near mirror images, cannonballs with silencers fixed to the muzzles, scorched from opposite faceoff circles into nothing but net.
The first came courtesy of Lightning captain Steven Stamkos in the first period, 35 feet deep according to the box score, stationed at his usual power play perch near the left dot. Stick cocked high and feet spread wide, Stamkos tracked defenseman Victor Hedman’s pass until it reached his strong side skate. His hips torqued. Capitals goalie Braden Holtby had no chance.
The second was whipped by winger Nikita Kucherov in the second period, 39 feet out on the right side, just above the hashmarks where he is often seen quarterbacking Tampa Bay’s man advantage. The feed slid over from Hedman, aimed so true that Kucherov hardly moved. Like Stamkos, he opened up and readied for the one-timer. Like Stamkos, the puck screamed off his blade and over the glove shoulder of Holtby, helpless again.
“Ones where it just come off the stick,” Stamkos said later, “and you know it feels really good.”
Spaced apart by roughly eight minutes of clock and an intermission, Stamkos and Kucherov’s power-play goals accomplished much more than simply putting Tampa Bay ahead 2-0 in its eventual 4-2 victory in Game 3. They leeched the life from a pulsing Capital One Center, leaving behind only anxiety (and eventually annoyance) for a crowd witnessing its first conference finals across all major sports in two decades. They energized a Lightning team that had been walloped in Games 1-2 at home before flying north to savage this series and their season—and succeeded.
“You think of Kucherov and Stamkos, those guys leading the charge,” coach Jon Cooper said, “when we’ve needed them in big games … those guys have delivered.”
It was true last round against Boston, when the linemates combined for two goals and an assist in a Game 4 road win. It was true in the first round too, when one goal and three assists lifted the Lightning past host New Jersey in Game 3. Plenty other firepower lifted the Atlantic Division champs Tuesday night—Hedman’s three points, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s 36 saves, a penalty kill responsible for snuffing all three of Washington’s 5-on-4 chances, to name several—everything stemmed from Stamkos and Kucherov igniting the fuse.
“It’s hard to cover all of them,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. “They moved the puck well, a lot crisper and a lot faster tonight, I thought. And it paid off.”
Unlike Alex Ovechkin on the Capitals’ power play, not everything ultimately funnels through the left faceoff circle for Tampa Bay’s top unit. There is deadline acquisition J.T. Miller, patrolling the goal line and mopping up loose change. And Brayden Point—whose even-strength goal late in the second period provided a backbreaking 4-1 lead—clubbing shots from the slot. Through east-west passes across the prized rink real estate known colloquially as the Royal Road, the Lightning have so far succeeded at keeping a mobile netminder like Holtby on his toes. After all, Stamkos struck with one-timers in Games 1 and 2 as well and Tampa Bay is now clicking at a 41.7% clip (5 for 12) during the series.
“You just have different threats out there,” Stamkos said. “When you have a guy on the opposite side who can shoot it like Kuch, they’ve got to respect one guy and that’s going to leave someone open.”
He was standing amid a throng of reporters with an ice pack wrapped around his right knee, the result of some unfortunate friendly fire. Aside from the swell and the chill, though, everything indeed felt, as he said earlier, really good. “We’ve made it a series,” said Stamkos. “That’s what we came in here tonight to do.” The cameras dispersed. He turned and walked toward the dressing room, leaving only one matter unsettled: Whose goal was nicer, Kucherov’s or his?
“I think mine,” Stamkos said with a smile. “Just because it went far side.”