Evgeny Kuznetsov’s goal at 12:42 of the third period made the difference in the Capitals’ thrilling 2–1 win over the Islanders on Monday night, sending Washington through to the second round for the first time since 2012.
Here are three thoughts on the conclusion of a bruising back-and-forth series:
1. Playoff heroes old and new reversed the Capitals’ Game 7 voodoo.
The Caps dominated possession all night. They outshot the Islanders 26-11 (only the sixth time since 1988 when the NHL began keeping track of shots that a team has been held to as few as 11 in a playoff game) and chopping up the best attempts at a continued cycle from New York’s top line to improve the franchise’s record in Game 7s to 4-9.
Kuznetsov came alive in Game 5 with two goals and an assist on seven shots, but the 23-year-old Russian winger’s decisive tally on Monday night will vault him into Capitals lore, joining Joel Ward who sent Washington to the second round in 2012 with an overtime winner in Boston. Ward also notched his first goal of the postseason at an ideal time on Monday by following a similar formula as that memorable put-back.
With under two minutes to go in the second period, Ward caused trouble in front of Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak by tangling up defenseman Johnny Boychuk(a scuffle that included an uncalled high stick to the side of Boychuk’s head) as Washington blueliner Brooks Orpik sent a slapshot from the point. When the rebound dropped at his feet, Ward cleared out Boychuk and muscled a shot through Halak’s legs and across the goal line.
Ward’s fearless, functional net-front game is precious currency in the playoffs, as Capitals coach Barry Trotz knows well: Trotz was behind the bench in Nashville when Ward spearheaded the Predators' 2011 playoff run with seven goals and six assists. With Ward rounding out the Caps’ dangerous top line and Kuznetsov showing flashes of hisplaymaking prowess, Trotz must be feeling good about his depth heading into Madison Square Garden for Game 1.
Kuznetsov’s game-winner was a piece of individual brilliance on a night when the Verizon Center’s energy had both sides gripping their sticks tighter than usual. Picking up the puck along the boards with his back to the Islanders’ net, he pivoted away from New York’s Frans Nielsen, carried the puck through the slot and held onto it long enough to force Halak into a helpless sprawl before wristing it home top shelf from a tight angle with 7:18 left to play.
2. The referees added one final dramatic twist.
After an intense, physical game, the only penalty called all night was a roughing minor on Caps defenseman John Carlson with 2:54 remaining. Carlson shoved New York’s Casey Cizikas up high in his own zone and left the Capitals with one final desperate penalty kill to close out the series. The Islanders entered the game 0 for 13 on the power play, and they weren’t able to set up sustained control in the offensive zone until the penalty expired and Halak was pulled in the final seconds for the extra attacker.
The first 57 minutes of action featured missed calls on both sides—the most glaring of the bunch came when Alex Ovechkin crumpled Isles defenseman Thomas Hickey with a hard cross-check to the back in the second period—but there’s a certain understanding that officials should do what they can to keep Game 7 from being decided by special teams. It’s an unwritten rule that is inconsistently applied, but the Capitals kept their composure and their defensive shape to ensure it went down as only a footnote of the night’s action.
3. The Islanders’ brilliant acquisitions came up just short.
Monday night had to be close to what Islanders general manager Garth Snow envisioned last October when he made a pair of trades just days before the season to shore up his blue line: Boychuk and Nick Leddy in a do-or-die playoff game on the road, closing down chances in front of the net and soaking up large chunks of minutes to ease the strain on the defensive pairings farther down the lineup.
Leddy and Boychuk recorded an exhausting 25:45 and 25:31 of ice time, respectively, which was coach Jack Capuano’s only option to protect his youthful bottom pairing of Matt Donovan and Scott Mayfield from the Capitals’ lethal top line. Leddy and Boychuk were able to cancel out many of Washington’s best early chances and sweep away the puck when Halak’s rebound control was not at its sharpest, and they stayed strong all game long.
For their part, Mayfield and Donovan produced a physical effort largely free of glaring errors, an admirable performance for players who skated in a combined 12 games during the 2014-15 campaign and made their playoff debuts in Game 6. But New York will spend the summer cursing its luck that defensemen Lubomir Visnovsky, Calvin de Haan and Travis Hamonic went down with injuries and were unable to help deliver the franchise’s first playoff series win in 22 years.