WASHINGTON (AP) — Andrei Vasilevskiy piled up the saves, and the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals traded blows in a thrilling potential playoff preview.
Vasilevskiy made a franchise-record 54 saves, Nikita Kucherov scored twice and the NHL-leading Lightning won their sixth consecutive game, beating the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals 5-4 in overtime Wednesday. The frenetic pace, high energy and hatred between the teams that met in last year’s Eastern Conference final made a rematch this spring all the more of a tantalizing possibility.
“I’m sure both of us would be very happy to see each other again if it’s the Eastern Conference final,” Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. “There’s a long way to get to that point. We’ll hopefully see them.”
Victor Hedman scored 3:01 into overtime to keep the Lightning rolling in their first game since clinching the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Despite nothing to gain in the standings, they managed to pick up two more points against the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals.
Vasilevskiy was on top of his game as Washington set a franchise record with 58 shots and allowed Tampa Bay just 28. He stopped countryman Alex Ovechkin 11 times in one of the finest performances of his career.
“Pretty safe to say who our MVP was tonight,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He was exceptional. Shame on us for giving up that many scoring chances, especially to a team that played a back to back, but you wake up in the morning and you see the boxscore and it’s going to say 5-4 Tampa, but obviously Vasy was a big reason for that.”
Kucherov’s two goals came on the power play, gave him 37 overall this season and increased his league-leading point total to 119. That’s 14 more than the next-closest player, reigning Art Ross Trophy winner Connor McDavid.
Anthony Cirelli and Stamkos each took advantage of a Capitals mistake to score, and Stamkos added two assists for a three-point night. The Lightning’s league-leading power play that hadn’t scored in two games went 3 for 3, and their penalty kill was 5 for 6, thanks in large part to Vasilevskiy.
“Another incredible performance,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “Definitely wish we played a little bit better in front of him and caused a lot of our havoc and chances against. He stood tall and gave us a great chance to find a way to win a game.”
The Capitals picked up a point to build on their division lead because of Evgeny Kuznetsov’s tying goal with 52.6 seconds left. Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin and T.J. Oshie also scored, and Braden Holtby allowed five goals on 28 shots as the Lightning beat the Capitals for the second time in five days.
“They’re a good team, we’re a good team, and it’s been two very close games,” Holtby said. “That’s what you want going into playoffs. That’s how you can learn the most and grow your team the most.”
The teams meet again at Tampa Bay on March 30 and could face off in the Eastern Conference final for the second consecutive year, if each gets through two playoff rounds.
“Oftentimes you’ll see teams that have success versus an opponent in the regular season, it doesn’t always carry over,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “It’s going to be a good challenge and there’s a little bit of animosity and rivalry forming with them. They’re fun games for our guys to play.”
There’s no shortage of bad blood between them already, and that caused the Capitals to suffer what would be a devastating loss. Defenseman Michal Kempny’s left leg bent awkwardly as he went down to the ice during a tussle with Cedric Paquette, and he needed help from trainers to get down the tunnel to the locker room.
Kempny did not return with what the team called a lower-body injury, and Reirden said “it’s safe to say he’s going to miss some time.” In the aftermath of Kempny going down, two unlikely fighters dropped the gloves when Washington’s Jakub Vrana and Tampa Bay’s Yanni Gourde traded punches. It was a boiling point in a fast-paced, intense clash that didn’t seem at all as if the Lightning had nothing to play for.
“Today was a good example of the goods and the bads in our game,” Hedman said. “When we do all the goods, we are a tough team to play against.”
NOTES: Lightning D Dan Girardi was downgraded to out indefinitely with a lower-body injury. Girardi missed his sixth consecutive game, and D Anton Stralman missed his seventh in a row with a lower-body injury. … Capitals D Brooks Orpik returned to the lineup in place of Christian Djoos after being rested at New Jersey on Tuesday in the first half of the back-to-back set. Djoos could return to the lineup, if Kempny misses any time.
Lightning: Make second stop on three-game trip Thursday at the Carolina Hurricanes.
Capitals: Continue homestand Friday against former coach Bruce Boudreau and the Minnesota Wild.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports