The Washington Capitals opened their defense of the Stanley Cup on Thursday night when they hosted the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at Capital One Arena. The Caps broke out to an early lead, and then they held on for dear life before scoring a late empty net goal to seal a 4-2 win.
Carolina came out hitting everything that was moving and dominated play early. They could not solve goalie Braden Holtby, though, and not taking advantage their territorial edge came back to bit them. It was the Caps who broke on top, mid-way through the period. John Carlson sent a cross-ice pass out of his own end to Nicklas Backstrom in the neutral zone. Backstrom weaved his way through center ice and into the Carolina zone, and then using defenseman Jaccob Slavin as a screen, snapped a shot over goalie Petr Mrazek’s glove to make it 1-0, 9:58 into the period.
The Caps’ power play took over after that. With Justin Faulk in the box on a high-sticking call, Backstrom camped out at the post to the right of Mrazek, and with Carolina’s defense otherwise occupied, was all alone to redirect a centering pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov from the right wing circle behind Mrazek to make it 2-0 at the 13:10 mark.
The Caps closed the scoring in the first period on another power play. Alex Ovechkin started the play with a cross-rink pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov along the right wing wall. Kuznetsov slid the puck out to John Carlson at the top of the zone for a shot that pinballed when it reached the crease. The loose puck skittered to Mrazek's right where Ovechkin was lurking, and Ovechkin slid a shot under Mrazek's right pad to make it 3-0, 18:05 into the period. That would do it for the first period scoring.
-- Carolina out-shot the Caps, 10-9, and out-attempted them, 19-15.
-- John Carlson had three assists, the first defenseman in Capitals history to record three assists in one period of a playoff game.
-- Carolina was credited with 23 hits in the first period.
The Caps put little pressure on Carolina in the second period, but Carolina was unable to take advantage, and the team skated 20 minutes without a red light being turned on.
-- Carolina out-shot the Caps, 11-4, in the period, and they out-attempted them, 20-19.
-- The Caps closed the hits margin in the period, credited with 27 after two periods to Carolina’s 32. Brooks Orpik led the team with six.
-- The fourth line took only seven shifts, total, through two periods.
If a two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey, the three-goal lead is not far behind. When Carl Hagelin had the Caps’ potential fourth goal on his stick on a breakaway in the fourth minute of the period, it looked as if this game could be put safely to bed. Alas, Hagelin’s backhand was not elevated, and Mrazek stopped it with his right pad. And that would be meaningful later.
How? Barely a minute later, Andrei Svechnikov ended Braden Holtby’s shutout bid when he took a drop pass from Linus Wallmark just inside the Caps’ blue line, circled through the right wing circle and around John Carlson, and snapped a shot past Holtby’s blocker on the far side to make it 3-1, 5:07 into the period.
Carolina closed to within a goal less than three minutes later, once more courtesy of Svechnikov. Justin Faulk dumped the puck into the Caps’ end, and Wallmark got to the loose puck first. He spun and centered the puck, but it slid behind Greg McKegg to Svechnikov in the right wing circle. He one-timed the puck past Holtby on the short side, and it was 3-2, 7:26 into the period.
The Caps buttoned things up better after that, and they even killed two Carolina power plays down the stretch. A minute after killing the second of those Hurricane power plays, Lars Eller ended the suspense, scoring an empty net goal at 19:23 to ice the 4-2 win.
-- The Caps had 18 shots on goal. It was the 22nd time in team history that the Caps recorded fewer than 20 shots on goal in a playoff game and the eighth time they did so in a win.
-- Alex Ovechkin had 11 shot attempts. Not all that unusual. The seven missed shots? Yeah, that stood out.
-- Carolina out-attempted the Caps, 69-43, 30-9 in the third period.
-- Nic Dowd celebrated his signing a three-year contract extension with the Caps by skating 6:40, which wasn’t even the team low. Chandler Stephenson skated 6:12, and Andre Burakovsky skated 5:27; neither had a shot attempt. It was a quiet night for the fourth line.
-- Five Caps took faceoffs in this game. None finished at 50 percent. Three finished at 43 percent (Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller, and Nic Dowd.
-- Brooks Orpik did not have a shot attempt, but he did have seven hits to lead the team. And Carolina, who opened the game with 23 hits in the first period, had only a 37-35 edge at the end.
-- Nicklas Backstrom had his third career multi-goal game, tying him for fifth place all time on the Caps’ list of playoff game multi-goal scorers.
-- Odd that Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom each skated less than 13 minutes at even strength. Five forwards skated more, including Carl Hagelin, whose 17:59 at even strength led all forwards.
-- Lars Eller was the only Capital with more than one takeaway. He had three.
-- The win was Braden Holtby’s 46th career playoff win, breaking a tie with Tony Esposito for 23rd place, all time, and lifting him into a tie with Jonathan Quick for 22nd place.
In the end…
Pretty? No. But the only thing that matters is that it was a win. Still, the Caps were almost victimized by a problem they have had all season and have yet to solve – weak third periods. This is the wrong time of year to endure that sort of thing, and it is something that the club needs to address if they are to keep home ice advantage.