The Washington Capitals had just done what had seemed impossible at times: survive a Tampa Bay Lightning power play. Capital One Arena roared. A moment later, it fell into a stunned silence. The red goal light flashed, and goaltender Braden Holtby was sprawled across his crease. Just six seconds after the power play ended, Lightning forward Alex Killorn drove the net and wedged a puck through Holtby as the netminder challenged him.
Killorn's goal, with 8:03 remaining in the third period, snapped a 2-2 tie, and Tampa Bay added an empty-net score 1.5 seconds before the final horn for a 4-2 victory in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, sending the best-of-seven series back to Florida tied at two games apiece.
Washington once led the series 2-0 but lost both of its home games this week to squander any cushion it had after improbably winning the first two on the road. The series is now effectively a best-of-three, and two of those games will be at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
Capitals top center Nicklas Backstrom returned to the lineup after missing four playoff games with a right-hand injury, and that meant Washington had its entire roster healthy and available for the first time since Game 2 of the team's first-round series against Columbus. But it didn't matter with Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy saving his best game of the series for Thursday night, when he made 36 saves. Before Killorn's game-winning goal, Vasilevskiy bought time for his teammates.
After a disappointing first period, the Capitals made a push in the second. Less than six minutes into the period, Alex Ovechkin's backhand saucer pass through the neutral zone hit center Evgeny Kuznetsov in stride for a breakaway. Much like the game-winning overtime goal Kuznetsov scored in Game 6 against Pittsburgh to send the Capitals to their first conference finals in 20 years, Kuznetsov beat Vasilevskiy with a shot through the netminder's legs.
But Vasilevskiy was the difference for the rest of the period, keeping the game tied at 2-2 despite Washington controlling play. The Lightning had a 20-minute period from the first period to midway through the second without a single shot on goal, and by the time both teams got through 40 minutes, the Capitals had 29 shots to Tampa Bay's 13.
With nine minutes left in the frame, Ovechkin had a glorious chance at point-blank range, but his shot sailed over the net. He kicked up a leg, hung his head back and screamed in frustration.
Then 5:43 into the third period, Chandler Stephenson's centering pass bounced off Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman and fluttered toward Brett Connolly, who managed to deflect the puck forward with the shaft of his stick. Vasilevskiy swatted at the puck with his glove to keep the puck out of the net. He looked like a typical hot goalie poised to steal his team a game.
The Lightning power play, which is 6 for 14 this series, got an opportunity with 10:09 left in the game after center Lars Eller was called for his second penalty of the contest and his fifth infraction in the past two games. Washington managed to kill off his hooking minor, but Tampa Bay maintained possession and, moments after the teams were at even strength, Killorn got a shot behind Holtby from close range.
The Capitals seemed to start well, getting the game's first goal on a Dmitry Orlov one-timer from the left faceoff circle, but then they quickly unraveled. Three shifts after Washington's goal, Tampa Bay responded, capitalizing on an egregious blind, backhand pass across the slot. The Lightning took the turnover gift, and Brayden Point completed a tic-tac-toe passing sequence with a tap-in goal to tie the game. Less than three minutes later, Eller was called for slashing.
Tampa Bay's power play has given the Capitals fits this series. While Washington has Ovechkin firing one-timers from the left faceoff circle, Tampa Bay has Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov doing that from each side. Point collected a puck in front of the net and fed Stamkos on the left side, where he was all alone and easily beat Holtby to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead.
The efficiency of Tampa Bay's power play then made Washington's man-advantage look worse as the Capitals got three straight power plays in the final nine minutes of the first period. Vasilevskiy made seven saves, three against Ovechkin. The more opportunities the Capitals got, the worse their power play performed.
The Lightning's penalty kill was considered a weakness entering this series, and the Capitals dinged the unit for three power-play goals through the first two games. Washington is 0 for 7 since.
Though the Capitals have just one playoff loss on the road, they've occasionally struggled at home, following a postseason trend around the league. Perhaps Washington tried too much at times at Capital One Arena in an effort to impress the home fans. Maybe there was more pressure or distractions at home. As the third power play of the first frame struggled to get any scoring chances, the team was booed off the ice for first intermission.
By the time Anthony Cirelli scored the empty-netter in the waning moments, more than a few boos could be heard.