Tampa, Fla. — 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 their 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,” 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 New Jersey and Boston.
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. It’s very uncharacteristic of us. That’s the difference. They’ve made plays, we haven’t. And it’s cost us,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said.
“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,” Cooper added. “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 it 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 it 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.”
Ovechkin also had a goal and an assist in Washington’s 4-2 victory in Game 1.
Vasilevskiy was pulled from the opener after facing 25 shots in two periods, but the Lightning didn’t pin the loss on him. Instead, they vowed to play harder in front of the young goaltender, who finished with 31 saves in Game 2.
Tampa Bay benefited early from a couple of questionable penalties — Wilson for goaltender interference and T.J. Oshie for high-sticking Victor Hedman, when the Tampa Bay defenseman actually was struck by the puck — to score twice in just over three minutes on the power play for a 2-1 lead.
Stamkos and Hedman assisted on Point’s goal at 7:08 of the first. Stamkos’ fourth goal in five games gave Tampa Bay its first lead of the series.
The Lightning will have to turn the series around on the road to return to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2015.
“We’ll prepare for the toughest game that we’ve played all season,” Stamkos said. “It’s gut-check time. Let’s see who we really are.”
Washington 2, Tampa Bay 0
Game 1: Washington 2, Tampa Bay 0
Game 2: Washington 6, Tampa Bay 2
Tuesday: Tampa Bay at Washington, 8
Thursday: Tampa Bay at Washington, 8
x-Saturday: Washington at Tampa Bay, 7:15
x-Monday, May 21: Tampa Bay at Washington, 8
x-Wednesday, May 23: Washington at Tampa Bay, 8
Winnipeg 1, Vegas 0
Game 1: Winnipeg 4, Vegas 2
Monday: Vegas at Winnipeg, 8
Wednesday, May 16: Winnipeg at Vegas, 9
Friday, May 18: Winnipeg at Vegas, 8
x-Sunday, May 20: Vegas at Winnipeg, 3
x-Tuesday, May 22: Winnipeg at Vegas, 9
x-Thursday, May 24: Vegas at Winnipeg, 8