Behind two goals from rookie center Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals bombarded the Islanders with 49 hits and nearly as many shots on Thursday night as Washington cruised to a 5–1 victory in Game 5. While firing 41 pucks on New York’s net, the Caps chased Isles goalie Jaroslav Halak after he allowed five goals through the first 49 minutes.
Taking their first series lead, Washington will return to Nassau Coliseum on Saturday with a chance to clinch.
And now, for a twist, let’s pose three questions from the game:
1. Did we just witness Kuznetsov’s coming out party?
One excellent game can’t be everything. But the 22-year-old rookie was certainly something to behold on Thursday night. Kuznetsov led the Capitals with seven shots on net and showed growing confidence on every shift. Though he has displayed flashes of great promise and brilliance on the ice at various times this season, he put together a solid all-around performance in an extremely important game. There had been high expectations and plenty of experimentation during this, his first full season. Slotted anywhere from the first line to the fourth on the Caps’ depth chart, he struggled mightily in the dot, winning just 44.6% of his draws this season. And early on he seemed overwhelmed by the defensive responsibilities that are required for any player under coach Barry Trotz.
But as the postseason neared, Kuznetsov began feeling more familiar with his teammates and opponents alike and started finding more success. He scored 22 of his 37 points after the All-Star break. Though he was held off the score sheet through the first four games of this series, his three-point night in Washington is exactly the sort of performance that a young player can build on. And even though he lost five of his nine face-offs, he won a crucial one in the offensive zone in the first period, which led to his first goal. His second, later in the third, was on a power move you only see from players who are brimming with confidence. The Capitals can certainly use the scoring depth he provides on Saturday and if they can win that game, beyond.
2. The Islanders were in a 2–1 game going into the third period, so what went wrong?
Entering Game 5, Islanders coach Jack Capuano was already working with a slightly shorter bench. With Lubomir Visnovsky out after taking a hard hit from Capitals winger Tom Wilson in Game 4, rookie defenseman Griffin Reinhart, with all of eight NHL games of experience, was thrust into the lineup on Thursday. Although Capuano gave the young defenseman fairly regular shifts in the first period, he began to pull back in the second, limiting him to four shifts and 2:14 total on the ice. Then New York’s blueline was thinned even further as Calvin de Haan left the game with 16 minutes remaining in the third. Taking a massive shoulder check from Caps winger Troy Brouwer, who has two inches and 20 pounds on the defenseman, de Haan—or rather his absence—left the rest of the Islanders overworked and outmatched for the remainder of the game. Washington had, however, already capitalized on its opportunities by that point, holding a one-goal lead through two periods. The go-ahead score, in fact, came thanks in part to de Haan, who made a costly defensive zone turnover that led to defenseman Karl Alzner’s goal at 10:31 of the second. And do de Haan rode pine for five minutes after that score and only took two more shifts that period. (Again, shortening the bench.)
3. How can New York ensure that Saturday isn’t Nassau Coliseum’s last game?
There were some relatively bright spots in the Islanders’ game on Thursday. The reunited top line of John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey generate some sustained pressure, particularly when the game was close. They connected for the Islanders’ opening goal nearly six minutes into the first period when Bailey took a feed from Tavares and sniped a wrister by goalie Braden Holtby. New York was able to stack its top line in part because of the return of Mikhail Grabovski, who played his first game since sustaining a concussion on February 19. Capuano said after the game that he was pleased with the effort he saw, and by Grabovski’s timing and his legs. Skating with winger Nikolay Kulemin, a player Grabovski knows not only from the Island but also from their tenures in Toronto, the center had a chance to re-acclimate himself. He finished with six shot attempts in more than 15 minutes of ice time. To extend the series and their Cup hopes, the Islanders—possibly down another defenseman—will need the goal support that a player like Grabovski can potentially bring.