Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Coming into their opening round playoff series against the New York Islanders, the Caps skated in 209 post season games in franchise history. In 29 of those instances the Caps played to a 2-1 decision, winning only nine times and losing on 20 occasions. Of those nine wins by a 2-1 margin, only one came against the Islanders, back in Game 3 of the Patrick Division finals in 1985. Twice they lost to the Islanders by that score, both times also taking place in that 1985 Patrick Division final that the Caps would lose in five games.
The Caps and Islanders added to that history by splitting a pair of 2-1 decisions on their way to a split of the first six games in their first-round series. The teams went into Game 7 just as close overall, each team having scored 14 goals in the series. When the first period of Game 7 ended scoreless, it seemed assured that the Caps and Isles would play this one close, perhaps to yet another 2-1 decision. That did not bode well for the Caps.
There was another memory lurking about this game, that being one of the most famous post season games in NHL history, the "Easter Epic" four-overtime game of April 18-19, 1987. That might have ended in another 2-1 decision, that one in the Caps' favor, but the Islanders scored with just 5:23 left in regulation time to send the game to overtime and, eventually, history as the Islanders escaped with a 3-2 win early on Easter morning in 1987.
This one was resembling that game long ago more and more as the time ticked on. In 1987 the Caps dominated the first period in shots, 15-5; last night it was 11-3 for Washington. The second period was more of the same, the Caps holding a 21-7 edge in shots over the first 40 minutes last night, while in 1987 the shot meter read "25-10," Capitals, at the second intermission.
In 1987 it was a late first period goal that put the Caps on top; last night it was a late goal by Joel Ward in the second period. It would be the Islanders tying things up with a goal by Frans Nielsen last night that slithered through Braden Holtby's pads, not altogether unlike the goal that Pat Flatley snapped through Bob Mason's pads on that April night in 1987.
The Caps regained the lead last night on a spectacular individual effort by Evgeny Kuznetsov, who darted off the right wing wall, leaving Nielsen in his wake, then skating across the high slot, underneath the late coverage of Brock Nelson. Eluding Nelson's attempted sweep check, Kuznetsov held the puck for what seemed like minutes, waiting for goalie Jaroslav Halak to commit. When he did, Kuznetsov fired high, just in time to deny defenseman Johnny Boychuk a chance to fill in behind Halak to block the open net.
It was a rookie scoring in a big moment, just as Grant Martin, playing in what would be his only career NHL playoff game, did when he scored to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead in Game 7 of the 1987 series against the Isles.
All that was left was for the Islanders to find their big moment, a moment authored by a player accustomed to the spotlight as Bryan Trottier was when he tied that Game 7 long ago. One might have expected a John Tavares moment at that point, but for the Islanders it would be a moment that never came.
If anything, Tavares would be the example of what might be, not a new chapter in Capitals history, but an entirely new volume. Tavares would not get a chance to be that hero for the Islanders, the player who would send the game further into the night. The Capitals would hold him without a shot attempt in the game. In fact, after the Kuznetsov goal the Capitals would hold the Islanders to a single shot on goal, a harmless 60-footer from Boychuk with 4:46 left.
In the end, the lasting image of this game will be Kuznetsov's celebration of his game winning goal. There might be one more symbolic, though, and it came in the dying seconds. The Islanders were desperately trying to gain control of a loose puck at the top of the Capitals' defensive zone. Battling them for control was Nicklas Backstrom, held off the score sheet for the third straight game in this series, but who did so many of the little things that needed to be done. He had one more as time was about to expire. He kicked the puck loose, out of the reach of the scrambling Islanders, and out of the zone, giving rise to the image of the Capitals kicking away a lot of frustration and disappointment, writing the first chapter of what one hopes will be a new and happier narrative of Capitals hockey.