Caps face bolts in do or die game 6 in dc dump n chase 5 gases in the atmosphere

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A week ago, the Caps came home from a triumphant trip to Tampa with a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference final. But playoff winds shift quickly, and the Caps come home from Saturday’s Game 5 with their season hanging in the balance. Three straight setbacks to the Tampa Bay Lightning leave the Caps down 3-2 in the series, and needing to win the next two games to prevent the onset of the offseason.

Washington dropped each of its home games in this series, then fell 3-2 in Game 5 on Saturday night in Tampa. The Caps started slowly on Saturday, spotting the Lightning a 3-0 lead by the first minute of the second period, and then playing relatively well the rest of the way.

Saturday’s game was the first in this series in which a home team has prevailed, the first in this series that the Caps did not surrender a power-play goal, and the first in which Lightning captain Steven Stamkos didn’t score. Tampa Bay scored three goals at five-on-five in Game 5, the first time Washington permitted as many as three goals at five-on-five in a span of 10 games.

“We don’t like to make it easy on ourselves very often,” said Caps goalie Braden Holtby after the Game 5 loss. “I think we’re pretty comfortable in the uncomfortable situations, which has been a great characteristic of our group. And now just is when you use all that past adversity and past challenges of overcoming it to your advantage. You can move into this game if we just focus, put our heads down and work, and realize what’s got us here – just play our game and we’re going to have success.”

As they head into their first elimination game of the 2018 playoffs, the Caps have a few things to worry about. First, they’ve scored exactly two goals in each of their three straight losses, and their second goal in two of those games came late in the third period with goaltender Braden Holtby pulled for an extra attacker.

Washington scored 10 goals on Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy in the first two games of the series, but has managed only six goals in three games since. There is evidence that Vasilevskiy is seeping his way into the Caps’ collective heads; they’re missing the net on a lot of their chances, sometimes trying to put too fine a point on the shot in an effort to avoid another of his excellent stops.

“I think we’re making a lot of good plays, we’re getting a lot of good chances. Just that one extra guy here and there is a big difference for a goalie. I think we’ve got to bring that extra guy in to possibly be a rebound option, pass option, just make him think a little bit, make him guess a little bit.”

Second, the Caps have had to work a lot harder for their offense than the Lightning has. In losing these three straight games, the Caps have scored only those six goals on 106 shots on net and 193 shot attempts. During the same span, the Lightning has scored 11 goals on just 65 shots on net and 140 shot tries.

Finally, the Caps bulled their way through the first two rounds of the playoffs by scoring first in nine of 12 games and playing with the lead much more than their opponent. Fourteen games into the 2018 playoffs, the Caps led all NHL teams in playoff lead time, and they trailed for a combined total of 113 minutes and 30 seconds, the least of any of the 16 playoff teams. But they’ve trailed more than that in the last three games, chasing the Bolts on the board for 130 minutes and 37 seconds in that span. Washington has been down by more than one goal for nearly half of the time in the last three games (87 minutes and 32 seconds) and it has owned the lead for a grand total of 70 seconds.

“We’ve been chasing the game a lot more,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “There’s no question. Last game, not [Game 5], but [Game 4], we got the lead, they got it back real quick, that type of thing. The first couple games, they were chasing us, and we’ve been chasing them the last couple games.

“It is a little tougher mentally. At the same time we’ve had some opportunities to win the game, we’ve had opportunities to tie it. We just haven’t found the back of the net.
I think special teams in Game 3 and 4 sort of changed it a little bit. Then we’ve been chasing it. [Saturday] night for me, it was our start, first minute of the period. We can’t have that.”

Whatever adjustments the Lightning made after going down 0-2 in the first two games at home have sustained it through three straight victories and have it poised to meet the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup final with one more victory.

“Supporting the puck has been a big thing for us,” says Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “We were a little free flowing, a little skating away. All of a sudden the 10-foot pass turned into a 30-foot pass. They were just killing us in the neutral zone. We couldn’t get through. We had to make a few adjustments there, get our mentality set of how we’re going to get through. So far, so good.”

“Our big thing is when you do build a lead, we have to continue to attack instead of sit back and just defend. We got away with it a little bit [in Games 4 and 5]. We’ve shown we can poke some holes into their game. They’ve shown they can poke some holes into ours. We have to just try to poke a few more than them.”

Despite its status as a division winner, Washington had a bit of bumpy ride this season. Salary cap woes led to some difficult off-season roster subtractions, and an influx of new personnel from within and from outside of the organization. Injuries dogged the Caps early in the season. A brutal schedule that featured 19 one-game road trips and had them going 44 straight days without playing consecutive home games late in the season made both resting and practicing a challenge, and made it difficult to string wins together. Holtby lost his groove for several weeks in the second half, and the defense in front of him was frequently porous.

“A lot of people counted us out when we got down 0-2 in the first round,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. “Things got hard in the last series where we could have melted, and we just kept playing. So that’s what we’ve got to do again. Bring our best effort for Game 6 at home, win a game, and then we’ll go from there. But we’re focused on bringing our best game of the season for Game 6, and we’ll be ready to go.”