Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Series: Tied at 2-2
Next game: Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, Capital One Arena
• The Great Eight becomes the Amazing Kreskin: Ovechkin’s guaranteed Game 4 win proves true (Read More)
• Top takeaways: Ovechkin, Holtby, Oshie power Capitals to a huge road win (Read More)
• The Capitals’ prevailed 4-1 to give Washington the first win of this series that did not require overtime. The Caps have now leveled the series at 2-2. (Read More)
• With both teams playing an extra 47:24 in this series because there’s been so much overtime, fatigue could play a factor going forward. (Read More)
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Alex Ovechkin now can add prophet to his impressive résumé.
When the Capitals found themselves in a hole after losing the first two games of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series at home, Ovechkin matter-of-factly said the team would return to Washington for a Game 5 with the series tied. He repeated himself Tuesday morning before the team won Game 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in double overtime.
Then, in the third period Thursday night, he ensured he would be right, scoring the Capitals’ third goal in a 4-1 win over the Blue Jackets, the first game of the series to be decided in regulation. The Capitals have stormed back, winning both games at Nationwide Arena to set up a return to Capital One Arena on Saturday tied at two games apiece and with home-ice advantage restored.
Though Ovechkin was most vocal in his confidence, the rest of the locker room shared his belief.
“There was no other option,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Our goal is to win a Stanley Cup, and that’s what we viewed as our best chance after losing the first two. We’ve been a confident group all year — I think that’s been our strongest asset — so I don’t think we’ve ever doubted ourselves.”
Washington has Holtby most to thank for the comeback. After he was initially beaten out by Philipp Grubauer to start the series, Holtby has shined in his return to the cage. He made 33 saves in Tuesday’s win, and though he saw fewer shots Thursday night, he was arguably sharper, so positionally sound that he barely seemed to be moving as he stopped several point-blank Columbus shots. The one goal he allowed, scored by Blue Jackets winger Boone Jenner, came when Washington already was up 3-0. He finished with 23 saves.
Though Columbus Coach John Tortorella thought his team played better than the Capitals in Game 3 despite the result, his assessment of the Blue Jackets after Thursday’s game was succinct. “We laid an egg,” he said repeatedly.
“It’s safe to say that was our most complete game from top to bottom,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “That’s something that we want to build on, and you can see at the end, when they scored that [Jenner] goal, it was like nothing even happened and we just kept going. That’s the kind of feeling you get when you’re playing consistent, deep hockey.”
Ovechkin has a history of postseason guarantees. Just three years ago, he said the Capitals would beat the New York Rangers in Game 7 to advance to the Eastern Conference final. That didn’t pan out, but Ovechkin has been confident in this team since training camp, even when external expectations were down. “We’re not going to be suck,” he said in September, and despite significant offseason roster turnover that had Washington leaning on more rookies in the lineup, the team won its division for a third straight year, largely because Ovechkin scored a league-high 49 goals.
Pessimism for Washington’s season returned when the Capitals lost their first two playoff games at home. But Ovechkin was so sure the team would respond that he said it twice.
“That just shows confidence that we’re confident we can do it,” Coach Barry Trotz said Wednesday. “But you can say it as much as you want. Now you’ve got to back it up.”
While Washington’s power play has been strong this series with six goals in the first three games, the Capitals’ stars had yet to impress at even strength. The Blue Jackets entered Thursday’s game with four five-on-five goals from their top line anchored by 19-year-old center Pierre-Luc Dubois, and the Capitals had just one goal from their first line — Tom Wilson’s tip in the last game. Meanwhile, Washington’s second line with center Nicklas Backstrom and Oshie had yet to score at even strength.
Wilson came through for a second straight game. Defenseman John Carlson and Chandler Stephenson had a two-on-one, and after Sergei Bobrovsky saved Carlson’s shot, Stephenson’s attempt to put in the rebound was foiled by Columbus forward Thomas Vanek, who was sprawled across the goal line. Vanek gloved the puck away, but Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov corralled it, setting up a Wilson one-timer to lift the Capitals to a 1-0 lead 6:16 into the game.
Washington has scored first in every game this series, but it has struggled to maintain the lead. The Capitals got their third power play of the game 8:49 into the second period, when Blue Jackets sniper Artemi Panarin was whistled for slashing Kuznetsov. Washington’s man-advantage has scored in every game this series, and it came through again. Ovechkin took two shots, but it was Oshie’s whack at the rebound that got past Bobrovsky to make it a 2-0 Washington lead.
“You’re up two or three goals in the playoffs, it can be tedious,” Wilson said. “The other team is coming. They’re taking chances. We did a good job at making the plays that we needed to and getting odd-man rushes.”
A two-goal cushion has spelled trouble for the Capitals this series, and it’s often referred to as the most dangerous lead in hockey. They squandered that very lead in the first two games, falling in overtime both times. But then Ovechkin scored 2:49 into the third period, pushing the Capitals’ lead to three goals for the first time in the four games.
That was insurance for what Ovechkin believed would happen all along: The Capitals are returning home with the series tied.
No overtime???: Um, were you looking for analysis here? Sorry. Wasn’t prepared for an immediate reaction after the game ended in regulation for the first time in forever (or so it seemed after the first three games). Just a moment please.
Ovechkin = Joe Namath … kinda: Okay, so it’s not the Super Bowl, nor the Stanley Cup finals, but Alex Ovechkin was proven correct when the Caps won two road games to even the series at 2 with Game 5 up next. Not only did he make the prediction the series would head back to D.C. at 2-2, he helped it happen with a goal in Game 4. The Washington captain now has three goals in this series and had 13 attempts on net in Game 4.
Holtby ends the debate: For the remainder of this series, it seems pretty clear that Braden Holtby will be the starter. As we’ve repeated frequently, Holtby has the second best playoff save percentage of all time. When your job is riding on the results of these playoffs, and without an extension, this very likely applies to Barry Trotz, a goalie like that becomes your ride-or-die guy. After 23 saves in Game 4, several of which were difficult saves that Holtby made look easy, it’s safe to assume he’ll start every remaining game in what is now a best-of-three series.
Oshie is in beast mode, but for how long?: The effort level of T.J. Oshie in Game 4 would have broken many jumbotron gauges. He scored a power-play goal that put the Caps up 2-0 and could have generated another tally with his dynamic efforts in the offensive zone Thursday night. The only issue isn’t one of desire, but health. During multiple shifts in Game 4, Oshie looked like he was laboring with what his team would likely label a “lower-body” injury. These are the sort of injuries that can mount int he playoffs. (Similar to Ovechkin’s regression at the end of last season’s series against the Penguins.)
End Period 3: Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1
Caps win and Ovechkin’s prediction comes true: Washington pulled away with an empty-net goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov with 2:19 remaining in the game, giving them a 4-1 victory and sending the series back to Washington tied at two games apiece.
Jackets chip away: Boone Jenner deflected a shot from Josh Anderson to put Columbus on the board at the 13:38 mark in the third period. The crowd is suddenly back in the game, and the cheers grew even louder after Bobrovsky stoned Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway with a glove save with 11:14 remaining in the period.
Ovechkin scores and the Caps have some breathing room: After refunding two-goal leads in Games 1 and 2, Washington’s 2-0 lead in Game 4 probably didn’t feel to secure. Then captain Alex Ovechkin rifled a wrister past Sergei Bobrovsky at 17:11 in the third period to give the Capitals the first three-goal cushion that either team has enjoyed in a neck-and-neck playoff series.
End Period 2: Capitals 2, Blue Jackets 0
The goalies are center stage tonight in Columbus. The Capitals probably would be leading by at least three goals if not for the heroics of Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who has 23 saves through two periods and at least three of the spectacular variety. On the other end, Columbus has had fewer shots, but several of them were very tough tests for Washington’s Braden Holtby, who has risen to the challenge on every puck fired his way after 40 minutes.
The Caps are now 20 minutes away from proving Alex Ovechkin’s Game 5 prediction of a 2-2 series correct.
Oshie scores on Ovechkin rebound for a power-play goal to put Washington up 2-0: The Capitals are once against leading 2-0. This is not a recording. T.J. Oshie scored on the power play just before the midway point in the second period to give Washington a — potentially dreaded — two-goal cushion. Oshie collected a rebound from an Alex Ovechkin shot and swept it into the back of the net after Artemi Panarin was whistled for slashing Evgeny Kuznetsov.
With 9:53 left in the second, the Caps are outshooting the Blue Jackets 21-10, though several of those 10 shots required strong saves by Braden Holtby.
Another Caps penalty, another kill: After a rush by Tom Wilson nearly made the score 2-0 in favor of the Caps — and would have if not for another sensational save by Sergei Bobrovsky — Lars Eller used his stick to tie up a Blue Jackets player, which is not legal. The Capitals once again managed to kill it off with just over 12 minutes left in the second period.
End Period 1: Capitals 1, Blue Jackets 0
Once again Washington has scored first, but that has not always ended well the first three games of the series. And there was a moment at the end of the period when it appeared the Capitals would again shoot themselves in the foot. After scoring the game’s first goal, Tom Wilson was called for tripping on what appeared to be a clean check at the Columbus blue line, with his upper body making the first contact. The Capitals were only briefly on the penalty kill though, as the refs immediately send Artemi Panarin to the Blue Jackets’ sin bin off the ensuing draw.
The Caps played well in the first 20 minutes, not only leading but outshooting Columbus 12-7. Braden Holtby made a couple of timely saves in the first frame, which should boost Washington’s confidence as well. Meanwhile the Blue Jackets have not been moving the puck well, whether that’s on them or due to something Washington is doing to stop up the transition game, Columbus has not had the same fluidity in its attack that it exhibited in the first three games … at least through the first period.
Bobrovsky’s sparking save doesn’t hold up long: Sergei Bobrovsky sprawled on the ice to stop a certain goal by Chandler Stephenson, but the Blue Jackets couldn’t corral the rebound and the puck found its way to Tom Wilson at the right point who blasted it over Bobrovsky’s glove. The Caps lead 1-0 for the fourth time in four games this series.
Wilson seems to be working on a redemption narrative after taking some costly penalties earlier this series.
At what point will Caps learn they’re calling everything in this series?: A little over 30 seconds expired in the first period and the Capitals have already taken a penalty, this one an offensive zone hooking call on Evgeny Kuznetsov. Washington killed it off with no shots allowed, however.
“Boom” goes the Jackets fan: Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis arrived at Nationwide Arena less than an hour before Game 4 was set to get underway on Thursday night, smiling at several ushers as he walked through the suite level to his box. He was wearing red, as was the group flanking him, but they were again in the minority as the atmosphere began to buzz. Blue Jackets fans had created a memorable playoff environment in Game 3 despite the Capitals’ 4-3 win in double overtime, and a couple were already back to heckle Braden Hotlby as he came out for his customary pregame routine on Thursday. One guy kept yelling “Boom!” at Holtby, perhaps trying to emulate the arena’s cannon after each goal. It will be Holtby who tries to keep that cannon from going off in a critical Game 4.
Immerse yourself in the Capitals’ postseason with The Post’s coverage of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs:
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson
Chandler Stephenson-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly-Lars Eller-Devante Smith-Pelly
Jakub Vrana-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Scratches: Andre Burakovsky (upper-body injury), Shane Gersich, Travis Boyd, Brian Pinho
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Christian Djoos
Scratches: Jakub Jerabek, Madison Bowey
Braden Holtby (starter)
Scratch: Pheonix Copley
Columbus’s expected lineup
Artemi Panarin-Pierre-Luc Dubois-Cam Atkinson
Boone Jenner-Nick Foligno-Thomas Vanek
Matt Calvert-Brandon Dubinsky-Josh Anderson
Sonny Milano-Mark Letestu-Oliver Bjorkstrand
Zach Werenski-Seth Jones
Ian Cole-David Savard
Ryan Murray-Markus Nutivaara
Scratches: Markus Hannikainen, Alex Broadhurst, Taylor Chorney, Jack Johnson, Scott Harrington, Dean Kukan, Lukas Sedlak (upper body), Alexander Wennberg (upper body)
Sergei Bobrovsky (starter)