UNIONDALE, N.Y. — After Braden Holtby made a third and final stop in a shootout Saturday night to snap the Washington Capitals’ five-game losing streak, the netminder pumped his blocker hand and received a group hug from teammates. But that’s all the celebration there would be.
As encouraging as Washington’s rally from a two-goal deficit and triumph in the tiebreak might be in a vacuum, it doesn’t significantly improve their postseason chances. This particular triumph, delivered in the extra session on a goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov, was far from a clean outing. The Capitals, who saw Mike Green unable to finish the game after suffering an undisclosed upper body injury in the first period, were outshot 38-29 and seemed to be caught off guard by a speedy New York squad at the start.
“Guys know where we’re at. We can’t celebrate too much. We’ve got to win them all to have a chance,” Jason Chimera said. “So hopefully we can take the good and the bad of this game — there was a lot of stuff to learn from. But you’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to win every game from now on. That’s where we’ve left ourselves, and guys realize that.”
With the win, Washington (83 points) moved within two of Columbus, which holds the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, but the Blue Jackets have five games remaining and own the tiebreaker. The Capitals also trail New Jersey (84 points) and Toronto (84).
But even if they win their four remaining games, the Capitals have less than a 50 percent chance of making the playoffs according to SportsClubStats.com.
“These two last games we’ve played with more urgency, come out with more energy and we don’t have a choice,” Marcus Johansson said. “We have to come out hard, and we have to win every game.”
The Islanders may be the third-worst team in the Eastern Conference and without two of their top players — John Tavares and Kyle Okposo — because of injuries, but they have embraced the role of spoiler down the stretch. New York came into the game having won five of its past six, boosted by an influx of young prospects getting a chance to prove themselves at the NHL level.
In the first period they swarmed and outskated Washington, beating the visitors to loose pucks and winning battles along the boards to generate waves of offensive chaos. Cal Clutterbuck gave New York a 1-0 lead at 12 minutes 55 seconds of the first period. Despite that tally, it was Holtby (35 saves, including 16 in the first period) who prevented the contest from becoming ugly.
“They pressured hard all night. It was really impressive. They didn’t give us much time and space in our own end,” Holtby said. “We stuck with it though, and we battled through it. There were a lot of simple plays that our D men had to make, were made very difficult for them. I thought our D men did a good job as the game went on and came out with a win.”
Kuznetsov recorded the third goal of his NHL career to pull the Capitals even early in the second period after a pretty give-and-go with Johansson. The tie didn’t last.
Eighty seconds after Kuznetsov’s tally, Islanders rookie John Persson, playing in his fifth NHL game, wasn’t tied up by John Carlson as he drove toward the net and fired a shot between Holtby’s legs to reestablish a New York advantage. It marked the 29th time the Capitals have allowed a goal within two minutes of scoring one. A little more than five minutes later, Frans Nielsen made it 3-1 Islanders with a power-play goal.
But then the Capitals finally showed signs of life, creating a scramble around the New York net and catching netminder Evgeni Nabokov (26 saves) out of position when Nicklas Backstrom fired into a wide open net to make it 3-2. Three shifts later, Joel Ward found a bouncing rebound in the slot and made it 3-3 at 15:01 of the middle period. The Capitals managed to nurse that tie until they could add a second point in the shootout.
“We were just trying to survive,” Joel Ward said. “You can go over whatever X’s and O’s on the board, say whatever, but you’ve got to execute and do the job. We dug ourselves a deep hole for sure; we’re just trying to win.”
Notes: Dustin Penner was scratched with an undisclosed upper-body injury. . . . Aaron Volpatti was activated off the long-term injured list and played his first game since Feb. 2 after being sidelined by an injured left shoulder.