MIke Vogel, Washingtoncaps.com

Backstrom, Carlson and special teams help Caps to a 4-2 win in Game 1 of ECQF series vs. Canes

Over the full 60 minutes of Thursday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, the Carolina Hurricanes were sharper and carried the play for more of the contest. But the Capitals were opportunistic early, they were strong on special teams throughout, and they were defensively staunch enough late to stave off the Canes’ expected pushback from an early deficit. It all added up to a 4-2 Washington win, and a feeling that they can and must play better in Saturday afternoon’s Game 2.

“Special teams were a huge part of the game,” says Caps coach Todd Reirden, “and in the third [we had] some really big kills there, and outstanding commitment blocking shots, some good saves by Braden [Holtby] as well. That was a really important part of the game.”

The Caps’ top players came to the fore to give the Caps a multi-goal lead in the first, and some of those same players made sure that Washington didn’t squander that advantage as the game wore on.

Nicklas Backstrom was a standout at both ends of the rink for the Caps, scoring twice in the first and executing a pair of key shot blocks late in the third with Washington clinging to a one-goal lead and Carolina on the power play with its goaltender pulled for a sixth attacker.

“Nicky, to a tee, is one of the best guys out there overall for us,” says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. “On and off the ice, [he is] a guy that sets the tone for this hockey club, and a guy that we all look up to. Him sacrificing the body is what it takes at this time of the year.”

John Carlson assisted on each of the Caps’ three goals in the first – tying an NHL playoff record in the process – and executed a crucial shot block on Carolina’s Micheal Ferland with just over six minutes left in the third, denying a glorious chance for the Canes winger from the slot.

“It’s a tough game,” says Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour. “Obviously, special teams got us, and that’s pretty much the whole story in that game.”

He’s not wrong. The Caps scored two power-play goals in the back half of the first, and they killed off two Carolina man advantages in the back half of the third, by which time Washington’s three-goal lead had dwindled to one.

Before the series started, the Canes were seen as a speedy but not particularly physical team. Carolina came out with a purpose, laying 22 hits on the Caps in the first frame, with 11 different Carolina skaters contributing to that total. Carolina also held the Caps without a shot on net for the first nine and a half minutes of the contest. For the first half of the opening period, Washington struggled to get going out of its own end, a pattern that held for much of the contest.

Things changed drastically just ahead of the midpoint of the first. Carlson sent Backstrom out of the Washington zone with a sharp cross-ice feed, and the silky Caps center carried into Carolina ice, gliding to the middle as he did so. From above the tops of the circles, he let loose of his underrated wrist shot, zipping it past Carolina netminder Petr Mrazek to give the Caps a 1-0 lead at 9:58.

The rest of Carolina’s first period woes were all on them, as they took a pair of unnecessary penalties to put the Washington power play outfit into play. The Caps’ extra-man unit scored multiple goals in the same game only twice in the last 52 contests of the regular season, but they struck twice in less than five minutes in the back half of the first.

Image courtesy of the Washington Capitals

Evgeny Kuznetsov spotted a stealthy Backstrom lurking near the back door, and threaded a tape-to-tape feed to him. Backstrom’s tap-in made it 2-0 at 13:10. Alex Ovechkin made it 3-0 at 18:05, collecting a rebound of a Carlson point shot and depositing it behind Mrazek.

With three goals in just over eight minutes, the Caps were off and running.

“I liked our first period,” says Brind’Amour. “It was just unfortunate that we got down three. I thought we started the first 10 minutes way better than I thought it was going to be.”

After taking a second offensive-zone penalty early in the second, the Hurricanes mounted a second-period push. Washington weathered that storm, keeping the Canes off the board. Holtby made an impressive left shoulder stop on Sebastian Aho on a Carolina power play, thwarting the Canes’ best chance of the middle period. The Caps had two more power plays in the second, and they teed up eight shot tries but got none on net; six missed the mark and two were blocked.

All Washington did in the second period was take 20 minutes off the clock. The Caps managed only four shots on net, three of them from blueliners and none from closer than 34 feet away.

Carolina dialed up its desperation in the third, and that enabled the Caps to get their best scoring chances of the night at even strength, but Mrazek set them all aside to keep his team in the contest. He stopped Nic Dowd’s rush chance a couple of minutes into the final period, thwarted Carl Hagelin’s breakaway bid a minute or so later, and then made successive stellar stops on Brett Connolly and then Lars Eller, who got hold of the rebound of Connolly’s shot.

Ten seconds after the save on Eller, Carolina’s teenage rookie Andrei Svechnikov scored off the rush, slipping a shot through some traffic in tight to make it a 3-1 game at 5:07. On his very next shift, Svechnikov struck again, this time beating Holtby on a one-timer off a good blind feed from Lucas Wallmark.

With 12:34 on the clock, the Canes had closed within one, and they had all the momentum as well.

Carolina spent four of those last dozen minutes with the man advantage, and they pulled Mrazek to get a six-on-four skater advantage with 55 seconds remaining in the second of those power plays. Washington’s penalty killers held the Canes to a single shot on net in those four minutes, a long distance shot from ex-Cap Justin Williams that Holtby set aside.

During that stretch of six-on-four, Backstrom got in the way of a Jaccob Slavin shot and then blocked Svechnikov’s late bid for a hat trick in his first career Stanley Cup playoff game. That alleviated some of the pressure, and Eller’s empty-netter with 36.6 seconds left finally enabled the sellout crowd at Capital One Arena to collectively exhale.

“Our special teams in general has to be better,” says Canes center Jordan Staal. “Both the PK and the power play weren’t good enough. In the end, I think five-on-five and the rest of the game was more or less us going and playing our game. But special teams has got to be better if we are going to win some games.”

Getting the win is what matters most for the Caps; years from now, few will remember that they weren’t exactly stellar over most of this series opener. Now they’ll get to work on improving the areas left lacking, starting with their five-on-five play.

“You leave from a game like this, and you’re happy with the win,” says Reirden. “But we can play better than that. And especially five-on-five for us is an area that we’ve got to do some work on. There is room for improvement in that spot for sure.

“I thought for the most part we defended it okay, but we can create more off of that. That being said, we had some good chances and missed the net sometimes, and their goalie made some saves when we had the chance to make it 4-0. But that’s an area we’ll be working on the rest of this evening and getting ready for [Friday’s] practice to improve in that area.”

David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...