For the first time in three years, the Capitals skated through a post-game handshake line with smiles on their faces.
Having just gone through one of the most physical playoff series in NHL history, one which totaled 630 hits between them and the New York Islanders, the Capitals are still alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs for a multitude of reasons.
Evgeny Kuznetsov was a beast in Round 1: The 22-year-old Russian rookie scored three goals on 13 shots in the seven-game series victory over the Islanders, none more dramatic than his series-clincher with 7:18 remaining in regulation.
“It was unbelievable,” Kuznetsov said. “All my years of hockey I never feel this. I’m so excited I scored and we won the game.”
Joel Ward is an immovable object: The Caps’ 34-year-old veteran refused to be moved from the goal crease throughout the series, resulting in Nicklas Backstrom’s overtime goal through Ward’s legs in Game 4, and his go-ahead goal in Game 7.
Ward said he fed off the energy of the crowds in both Uniondale and Washington, where he was both reviled and reveled.
“When you’re on the road in Long Island and people are booing you and cursing you out, you want to be in that moment and you want to be that guy. I just love hockey, I love playoffs. I want to win the Cup. I just happened to get a few bounces and I got a couple of bounces to put it in. But I’m just excited to move on and keep ‘er going.”
The Caps’ penalty kill was perfect: The Islanders relied heavily on their power play during the regular season and the Caps’ penalty killers were a perfect 14-for-14 in the series.
That perfection included a wild and wooly two-minute kill of a roughing minor on defenseman John Carlson with 2:54 to play in regulation. Defenseman Brooks Orpik, who broke a skate blade when he blocked a shot by Kyle Okposo minutes earlier, was on the ice for 1:15 of that kill.
“I think the main thing for our success on the PK in this series was we didn’t allow them to enter [the offensive zone] very well,” said Caps goaltender Braden Holtby, who faced just 11 shots, the lowest Game 7 shot total in NHL history “Our coaching staff did a great job preparing us.”
Staying healthy: While the Islanders lost two key defensemen in the series because of injuries, the Caps’ only casualty came in Game 3 when Eric Fehr was injured on a check by Cal Clutterbuck.
The two teams combined for 100 hits in Game 7 alone.
“That’s one of the tougher first-round series I’ve ever played in,” said Orpik, who dished out a team-high 41 hits in the seven games, second only to Matt Martin’s NHL-leading 52 body checks. “For a team that had that many injuries, I can’t say enough good things about the way they competed.”
Because of the physicality of the series and the fact the Caps will not begin their second-round series against the New York Rangers until Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, Barry Trotz gave his players the day off on Tuesday.
They will return to Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington on Wednesday to prepare for Rick Nash, Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and the rest of the Rangers, who went 3-1-0 against the Capitals during the regular season.
“It gets tougher every round,” Ward said. “They won the Presidents’ Trophy [with an NHL-best 113 points] and they had a good first series [five-game win over Pittsburgh]. It’s going to be tough, but when we play within our system and not get carried away we have better results. It’s going to be fun again going back to New York and Madison Square Garden.”
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