It’s too early for the Caps to panic, but not too soon to stay out of penalty box

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By Barry Svrluga,

It’s a series now, and deep down the reasonable people who filed into Capital One Arena knew it was always going to be. It’s not because the Washington Capitals are the Washington Capitals and they’re destined — because of something in their DNA — to take manageable situations and create chaos. It’s because the Tampa Bay Lightning was the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, and obediently laying down wasn’t going to happen.

This is not dire. Let’s not even say “not yet,” because that suggests too much impending doom, the kind the Capitals have provided for most of their existence. But the Capitals spent the past month establishing reasons this group is somehow different from its predecessors. Sixty lousy minutes — a 4-2 loss to the Lightning in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday night — don’t change that.

[Lightning win, 4-2, and are awake in this series]

(Man, it’s tempting to write “yet.” But I’m not going to do it. I’m not. (Yet.))

What we know, however, is another performance like Tuesday’s will be unacceptable, and then jitters would be warranted. So a starting point for the Capitals:

Stay out of the gosh-darn penalty box.

Steven Stamkos is here to remind you of that. Nikita Kucherov is here to remind you of that. You’ll have to watch those two celebrating together to understand the impact, because the shots they launched couldn’t be seen live. Slow down the replay considerably, and you might catch a glimpse.

This is both blatantly obvious and somewhat trivial, but let’s say it anyway: the Lightning power play is deadly. I’d argue it won Tampa Tuesday’s game, because Stamkos scored on its first opportunity and Kucherov on the next, and a Capitals team that absolutely dominated two games in Tampa suddenly was being dominated at home.

The penalties that led to the goals were each avoidable: Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, of all people, tripping Lightning forward Yanni Gourde in front of the net, even though the puck was in the corner and there was no clear and present danger. And then early in the second period, Capitals center Lars Eller, corralling a high rebound in front of Holtby with his glove — and closing his hand on the puck.

That’s a no-no, and an unnecessary one.

This is not news to the Capitals, that spending time on the penalty kill is a dangerous way to approach Tampa. Stamkos sits in that left circle on the weak side, essentially doing the best impersonation of Alex Ovechkin that the rest of the NHL has to offer. Kucherov can both snipe and distribute, and defenseman Victor Hedman knows where both are at all times.

That unit, then, was the third-best in the league during the regular season, and it entered Tuesday’s game as the third-best power play in the playoffs — trailing, notably, Washington, which can be just as lethal. But the Capitals controlled the first two games in Tampa in large part because they controlled things at even strength. They were superior in the neutral zone. They didn’t give up a single odd-man rush. They were disciplined.

When the Capitals did wind up in the box during their weekend in Florida — even when they shouldn’t have been there, such as with T.J. Oshie’s phantom high-sticking call in Game 2 — the Lightning gave every indication of the hell it would unleash if it was granted power-play opportunities.

At one point during these playoffs, Washington killed 24 straight penalties. Not against the Lightning. When Kucherov blew his shot past Holtby early in the second, it was Tampa Bay’s sixth goal of the series. Five had come on the power play — and to that point, the Lightning had only had nine chances.

Clean that up Thursday, and there’s reason for optimism that the Caps will head to Tampa with a three-games-to-one lead. Give the Lightning the advantage, and hold on for dear life.

[Boswell: The story can change. And I think it’s changing now for the Caps.]

The Capitals aren’t at that point. But there’s one other element that can’t be repeated Thursday if panic is to be staved off: Holtby has to be a hero, again.

This might be unfair, because how was he supposed to stop any of the Tampa Bay goals Tuesday night? Stamkos’s was a laser. Kucherov’s was similar. Hedman was left wide open in the slot, where Kucherov found him with a nifty pass. And Brayden Point shot the puck between the legs of Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson, a screen through which Holtby couldn’t possibly have seen the puck.

But for all the analysis of the Capitals’ more responsible play in this postseason, and all we have wondered about what might be different in the dressing room, the difference in the first 14 games of their postseason was, in fact, Holtby. The guy who wasn’t the original starter in the first-round series against Columbus has been their MVP. He outplayed the Blue Jackets’ Sergei Bobrovsky. He (badly) outplayed Matt Murray of the Penguins. And he began this series by putting in far superior work to Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Lightning.

For the Capitals to get to where they want to go, they need heroes. It says here Holtby needs to be one of them.

But that’s the thing about Tuesday night. There’s still plenty of time for all that to happen. Game 3 was a setback, discouraging for sure to the red-clad fans who wanted so badly to welcome their lads back home. But it wasn’t more than that.

So don’t start pacing. This is now a series, sure. But it’s not a disaster or a meltdown or any of that stuff we used to have to write about this franchise, regardless of the year. It’s not any of that stuff.

Yet.

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