'Smart' Capitals showed shades of 2018 play in comeback win


SUNRISE, Fla. — It was fitting that, of all things, the Capitals' rally in the third period of their first Stanley Cup playoff game of 2022 was spurred by a poke check in the neutral zone from captain Alex Ovechkin

With the Capitals down a goal almost midway through the third period, Ovechkin stripped Florida Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar and a streaking Evgeny Kuznetsov picked up the loose puck. He made a few moves and buried his breakaway goal to tie the game. 

Then just two minutes later, Nicklas Backstrom made a fantastic pass to a cutting T.J. Oshie, who directed the puck past Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to give the Capitals a lead they didn’t relinquish. 

The end result, after a Lars Eller empty-net goal, was a 4-2 Capitals win on a night when their offense created quality scoring chances, their defense prevented the league’s best offense from playing their game and their goaltender was up to task. 

Now, the Capitals have a 1-0 lead in the series, have stolen home-ice advantage and have laid a lot of concerns entering the series to rest. 

“I think the message was just to stick with our game,” Oshie said of the second intermission message in the locker room. "We were generating chances, we were getting a lot of shots. Bob was obviously making a bunch of big saves, they had a couple guys that made some saves on some empty-netters so we just wanted to stay with our game. We didn’t change one thing. Just wanted to continue with how we were playing and found a way to pop a couple.”


Washington’s victory on its own was impressive, considering the long odds it faced entering the series against the 122-point Panthers. But the way they won was perhaps the most positive sign for the Capitals, who did so without Tom Wilson, who left with a lower-body injury, for a majority of the night. 

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The Capitals outshot the Panthers 26-25 at five-on-five and surrendered just seven high-danger chances — four of which came in the final frame — to a team that averaged 11.4 at five-on-five this season. 

“They’ve got a lot of weapons and they come at you in a lot of different ways,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “I thought we were smart. We were smart with puck decisions, smart in the offensive zone. I thought we competed really hard in the defensive zone. So there were some good things that we did defensively.”

Absent Wilson, who scored the first goal of the night, for all but three shifts, the Capitals turned in one of their most complete performances of the season against the best team in the sport. 

"We know, we believe (in) ourselves, this game of course could be give us lot of positives," Kuznetsov said.

And in the final moments of the night, with the Panthers frantically pushing for a tying goal, the Capitals kept the pressure up and prevented a lot of quality scoring chances from a team that made its living off them in the regular season. 

The Panthers had an NHL-best 29 comeback wins this season, including one against the Capitals, but goalie Vitek Vanecek and the defense in front of him helped slam the door for the team's first true road playoff win since the Stanley Cup clincher in Vegas in 2018. 


“I think some of it came from the neutral zone on entry and I thought our guys did a pretty good job there,” Laviolette said. “We were able to get some pucks and get some clears. I think that’s always important. It’s when you stay in the zone and you have to play defense and your guys have been out there for a little bit that you can become a little bit more stationary and not push as much as you want defensively.”

With the series now 1-0 in Washington’s favor, Game 1 could turn out to be pivotal for a lot of reasons as the best-of-seven moves along. But the way the Capitals played, paired with the result on the scoreboard, showcased a lot of reasons for optimism. 

And in a few minute stretch in the third period, started by Ovechkin’s stick check, the Capitals earned a win that didn’t seem likely to get on paper just a few days ago. Should stealing home ice become crucial late in the series, there’s now a clear moment, and player to point back to. Kuznetsov knows it, too. 

“That’s why he’s legend, right?”

All first-round games of Capitals vs. Panthers will be available regionally on NBC Sports Washington and streamed live on the MyTeams app.