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Remembering the other series-clinching goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov

Remembering the other series-clinching goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov

When you think about Evgeny Kuznetsov in the playoffs, most probably think of his overtime-winning goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018 that ended the series and handed Washington a long-awaited victory over its archrival. But that wasn’t the first series-clinching goal Kuznetsov scored.

Before the Stanley Cup was brought to Washington, before the bird celebration, there was another epic moment of Kuznetsov’s career that now feels overshadowed by the 2018 run.

In 2015, the Caps returned to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. They entered the postseason as the second-place team in the Metropolitan Division, drawing the third-place New York Islanders in the first round.

A back-and-forth series, it ultimately went the distance with Game 7 being played in Washington. As even as the series had been, the Caps dominated that Game 7, suffocating the Islanders and giving up only 11 shots on goal. Joel Ward put Washington ahead 1-0, but Frans Nielsen tied it early in the third period. Despite the dominant defensive performance, Jaroslav Halak (remember him?) would not allow the Caps to the chance to put the game away.

Just when it began to feel as if Halak was going to steal away another Game 7 from the Caps, a young Russian center in just his first full NHL season took over.

With less than eight minutes remaining in the third period, Kuznetsov took a pass along the half wall, showed Frans Nielsen his back and when Nielsen bit, he spun and cut to the center of the ice. Nielsen was caught a step behind and whacked Kuznetsov in desperation, actually diving to the ice to try to keep him from breaking loose. In one slick move Kuznetsov had cut through the Islanders’ defense and was in alone on net. Halak went down to the butterfly as Kuznetsov cut to center, but Kuznetsov showed incredible patience and did not immediately shoot. Suddenly, Halak was committed and helpless. He dove to his right desperately holding up the glove as Kuznetsov kept gliding across the ice, but Halak had left too much of the net open by going down too soon and Kuznetsov hit the corner.

With 7:18 remaining in the game and the series, Kuznetsov had given the Caps the 2-1 lead.

The series was a breakout performance for Kuznetsov who returned the following season and earned a top-six role, something not all that easy for young players to do under head coach Barry Trotz. It also gave a franchise still bearing the scars of Halak’s 2010 upset a measure of revenge.

And the rest is history.

What heroics does Kuznetsov have in store for the Islanders on Saturday when the two teams meet at 1 p.m.? Tune in to NBC Sports Washington at 12 p.m. for coverage.

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How to watch Capitals vs. Flyers

How to watch Capitals vs. Flyers

While the Capitals didn’t start their round-robin return as well as they would’ve liked, they have the chance to redeem themselves in Thursday’s matchup against the Flyers.

In their 3-2 shootout loss to Tampa Bay, Washington had its bright moments like back-to-back goals at the end of the second period, but the team also faltered on a number of fronts, which led to the overtime defeat.

Now that the Caps have had one real game under their belt, they will look to take down Philadelphia and continue to fight for the top playoff seed in the east.

CAPITALS vs. FLYERS HOW TO WATCH 

What: Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers 
Where: Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Canada 
When: 4:00 PM ET 
TV Channel: Capitals vs. Flyers will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington
Live Stream: You can live stream Capitals vs. Flyers on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page and on the NBC Sports App.

CAPITALS vs. FLYERS TV SCHEDULE

3:00 PM: Caps Pregame Live (LIVE)

4:00 PM: Capitals @ Philadelphia Flyers (LIVE)

6:30 PM: Caps Postgame Live (LIVE)

CAPITALS vs. FLYERS WHAT TO WATCH 

While the Caps had an overall strong start to their return, they will need to improve on a number of fronts if they hope to succeed in the postseason. One area that plagued them in the matchup with Tampa Bay was their slow start. By the eight-minute mark of the second period, the Caps had already fallen behind 2-0 after goals from Nikita Kucherov and Mitchell Stephens. 

While they were able to score two consecutive goals late in the second, their efforts only dug them out of the previous hole, and they were never able to overtake the lead. 

Additionally, the Capitals missed a number of opportunities throughout the game that could’ve sealed the win, such as a one-on-one overtime shot for Jakub Vrana and missteps throughout the shootout. In the matchup with Philly, Washington must capitalize on these opportunities. 

CAPITALS vs. FLYERS PLAYERS TO WATCH 

John Carlson (69 games, 15 goals, 60 assists, 75 points): The Capitals certainly missed Carlson during the matchup with Tampa Bay. He did not see the ice after sustaining an injury in the exhibition game against Carolina. Instead, Carlson was seen in the stands supporting his team. The Capitals will hope their Norris Trophy finalist can make his return against Philly. 

Michael Raffl (58 games, 8 goals, 12 assists, 20 points): Raffl led his team to a 4-1 victory over Boston on Sunday. He contributed a goal and an assist to the win. Raffl ranks 12th in points on the team this season but is already off to a hot start in the postseason.

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What's goalie prospect Vitek Vanecek's upside? Let Olie Kolzig explain

What's goalie prospect Vitek Vanecek's upside? Let Olie Kolzig explain

The injury to Ilya Samsonov left an opportunity for another goalie to step in as the backup to Braden Holtby and prospect Vitek Vanecek has taken that opportunity and run with it. He beat out Pheonix Copley for the job despite the fact that Copley was the backup just last season in 2018-19. When looking at the Capitals' future in net, that conversation has largely begun and ended with Samsonov. But what exactly is the upside of Vanecek? Who better to ask than Olie Kolzig?

Kolzig is one of the best goalies in franchise history so he knows a thing or two about goaltending. As a professional development coach for Washington, he is also very familiar with Vanecek. Kolzig joined the broadcast on NBC Sports Washington on Monday and, when asked about Vanecek, he offered a glowing review.

"I think if you see the small sample size that he showed last week in the exhibition game against Carolina, he can fill in adequately," Kolzig said. "He's got a great demeanor about him, players love playing for him and his progression over the last three or four years has been nothing but phenomenal."

RELATED: VANECEK WILL PLAY IN ROUND-ROBIN, CAPS' FATE THOUGH WITH HOLTBY

Vanecek now has five years of experience in North America under his belt, but has yet to play in an NHL game. He has nothing left to prove at the AHL level, but his appearance in Wednesday's exhibition against the Carolina Hurricanes was the closest he has come to NHL action.

With the likely departure of Holtby in the offseason, there is going to be an opening on the roster at the goalie position. That makes the biggest question on the mind of Caps fans is just what is Vanecek's ceiling?

"I think he can definitely be a No. 2 in the NHL," Kolzig said. "It wouldn't surprise me if he could battle for a No. 1, but as of now is a No. 2. He's progressed here since [the Capitals] drafted him. His demeanor, his relationship with his teammates, he just needs to be seen. He needs to get some NHL action because he's proved it at the East Coast level and the American League level, but small sample size we saw last week shows he can do it so far at the NHL."

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This is going to be a tricky situation for Washington. If the feeling on Vanecek is that he is a No. 2, then you can see why the team was all-in on Samsonov this season as the backup to Holtby to prepare him for the future. Even if Samsonov is the No. 1 going forward, however, it is not a given that Vanecek will be the No. 2. If the Caps still see themselves as contenders, will general manager Brian MacLellan really want to hand the crease over to two goalies with a combined 26 games of NHL experience? Probably not.

Having a No. 2 goalie in the system is a good player to have, but the timing of it makes it difficult to see what the possible future of Vanecek may be in Washington.

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