• A blow-by-blow recap of Game 3. It’s not for the faint of heart. (Read More)
• Braden Holtby was back in net for the Capitals on Tuesday. (Read More)
Braden Holtby and Lars Eller’s ugly goal give Capitals first win of 2018 NHL playoffs
By Isabelle Khurshudyan
COLUMBUS, OHIO — Braden Holtby walked out to the Washington Capitals’ bench an hour before puck drop Tuesday night carrying his stick with him. He leaned his forearm and chin on the blade, staring at an empty sheet of ice in an empty arena. It’s a pregame ritual when he starts, a peaceful few minutes before he is the last line of defense for what can often be chaos in front of him.
When Holtby took his place in the patch of blue paint, Columbus Blue Jackets fans mockingly sang his name. Pucks bounced off and around him. As Game 3 of this first-round Stanley Cup playoff series became a marathon, two-overtime whirlwind, Holtby was the picture of poise, steady as everything else was shaking.
Then, exactly nine minutes into the second extra period, Lars Eller scored on a rebound, and the Capitals’ playoff hopes went from dismal to slightly less so. Washington won, 3-2, and cut Columbus’s series lead to two games to one. Holtby finally left his net after a brilliant 33-save performance, joining the Capitals’ wild celebration on the other end of the ice.
Holtby’s journey to that moment had been about as wild as Tuesday night’s game. He went from being Washington’s no-doubt No. 1 goaltender, a Vezina Trophy winner just two years ago, to struggling so much in the second half of the season that he was on the bench to start the playoffs. As the Capitals found their groove again with their first win of the postseason, so too did their goaltender. He weathered four Blue Jackets power plays, including one in the first overtime.
“It’s pretty normal in my eyes,” defenseman John Carlson said. “I think he did a great job playing the puck, stopping the puck. Yeah, he probably hasn’t had his best stuff like we’re normally seeing, Vezina-type seasons. But you win the Vezina, you’re capable of being a pretty good goalie, and there was no drop in confidence from us. He’s a battler, and that’s what he did.”
A sold-out Nationwide Arena had been quiet to start the third period as the Capitals led by a goal. Then Dmitry Orlov committed an offensive-zone turnover, and Blue Jackets forwards Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson raced up the ice with just Carlson back. Panarin passed to Atkinson. Atkinson passed to Panarin.
Panarin shot into a half-open net as Holtby split from one side of the crease to the other trying to follow the rapid puck movement.
White towels waved. The arena’s infamous goal cannon went off. Then the “Holt-by” chants started. For the third game in a row, the Capitals and Blue Jackets were tied late. Eight of the Capitals’ past nine games in a first-round series have gone to overtime.
“We’re mature in that area, if you will,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “They’re exciting games. There’s two good teams here. There’s very little separation.”
Considering this was effectively a must-win game for the Capitals because just four teams have ever recovered from a three-games-to-none deficit, Columbus looked just as desperate as Washington, if not more so. In front of their home fans, the Blue Jackets tasted the opportunity to inch closer to the organization’s first series win. The Capitals caught a break when Panarin’s slap shot in the final two minutes of regulation went off a goal post, sending the teams to a third straight overtime. When that didn’t decide it, a second overtime period came.
“I think the first overtime, you’re a little more focused,” forward Tom Wilson said.
“Second overtime, a few more jokes come out, and it’s a little lighter.”
With both teams fatigued after having played essentially an extra game with four overtimes in three games, Eller’s goal was exactly the kind of fluky tally that happens after 89 minutes of hockey. Brett Connolly put a shot on net, and Eller went for the rebound. The puck bounced off Columbus defenseman Zach Werenski’s leg, then off Eller’s skate and then past goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
“It was a real ugly OT-winner goal,” Eller said. “I had a feeling it was going be one of those. It doesn’t make the win less sweet.”
After allowing four goals on 22 shots through two periods in Game 2 on Sunday night, goaltender Philipp Grubauer was benched for Holtby, who has the second-best all-time career postseason save percentage. Holtby had struggled in the second half of this season, and he was eventually unseated as the team’s starting goaltender because Grubauer outplayed him down the stretch. But Holtby had improved over the final month, and Trotz put him back in net for Tuesday’s game, his 60th postseason start.
“There was still some rust at times,” said Holtby, who had previously started a game 10 days ago.
Holtby had especially struggled through February; he was 2-5-2 with an .873 save percentage and 4.62 goals against average. He allowed three goals on nine shots in a game at Anaheim and was yanked in the second period, the third time he had been pulled in a stretch of six starts. The next day in Los Angeles, Trotz told Holtby he would be starting Grubauer for the next week because he wanted Holtby to have a “reset” period to work on his game. Trotz said Holtby had gotten “away from some of the foundations” that made him one of the best goaltenders in the league for four years.
With Washington on the edge of disaster after losing the first two games of the series at home, Trotz trusted Holtby to backstop a Capitals comeback.
“He had a chance to come in down in the series, and he’s a competitor, one of our leaders,” Wilson said. “I think the season got away from him a little. It wasn’t like he was playing badly, you know? He drops a couple games, Grubi comes in and is playing phenomenal and then you have that kind of controversy. That’s hard on a goalie. They’re good friends, but it’s hard when you have a guy right behind you who’s playing unbelievable. You maybe fight the pucks a little more.
“But I think that looked like the Holts that we all know. It’s great to see.”
As a somewhat familiar script plays out, Caps author a new ending: Washington had seen this one before. Twice in this series the Capitals had jumped out to a lead, twice they watched the game result in an overtime loss. This time was different. Lars Eller scored, somehow, nine minutes into the second overtime to give Washington a badly needed victory in Columbus and claw back into a series that is still led by the Blue Jackets 2-1. This goal fell out of the ugly tree and hit every twig on the way to the ground, but its doubtful the District’s fans will much care.
The precipice over which Washington dangled was daunting. A four-game sweep would have brought serious scrutiny to every aspect of this franchise — one bathed in regular-season glory and repeatedly punctured by postseason pain. No team had ever lost the first three games of a series all in overtime, and because of Eller’s goal, fluky as it was, that streak will endure.
Caps better at even strength: Washington had more success at even strength in Game 3 than it had in the two prior games. The Caps edged the Blue Jackets in high-danger chances 13 to 9 and scored their just their third and fourth even-strength goals of the series.
Tom Wilson makes good after bad penalties: Tom Wilson was criticized for taking silly penalties in both Game 1 and Game 2, and both of those led to critical goals for the Blue Jackets He took another penalty in Game 3, but this time things ended up going in his favor. The Capitals killed that penalty and later Wilson gave Washington its first goal of Game 3 on a tip-in of a Matt Niskanen shot.
Wilson has been a juggernaut in postseasons past. Against the Toronto Maple Leafs last season he scored three goals. In 2015 against the New York Islanders he was a wrecking ball on the forecheck. This postseason, he’s been more liability than asset given the untimely penalties, but maybe that’s starting to swing after a pivotal goal in a must-win game.
Jakub Vrana’s stick helps Caps get a goal … in a way: Jakub Vrana was a healthy scratch in Game 2. In Game 3 he was called for high-sticking with 1:33 left in the first period in the offensive zone. Prior to that in the period he was unable to capitalize on an odd-man rush when his shot was gloved down by Sergei Bobrovsky. It was not the impression he wanted to make when he got back into the lineup on Nicklas Backstrom’s line as a replacement for the injured Andre Burakovsky.
But things got better after Vrana drew two slashing calls, the second leading to a 5-on-3 goal from John Carlson that gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead heading into the third period.
Braden Holtby starting to look like Holtbeast once more?: After sitting out Game 1 and then coming on for the third period and overtime of Game 3, Braden Holtby looked to be in Vezina-caliber form in the first period, stopping nine shots by Columbus. He stayed strong, but he wasn’t perfect in the second. The first shot to penetrate his defenses, a wrist shot by Pierre-Luc Dubois, was not an unstoppable goal, even if it was well placed in the cage. For what it’s worth, NBC analyst Mike Millbury called it an “ace goal” and did not fault Holtby.
The cross-ice pass from Artemi Panarin forced Holtby to move all the way across the crease and he was off his line when the shot was released. If you want to focus on the strategy, it’s the kind of play the Capitals and other NHL teams want to execute because it leads to better scoring chances. If you want to harp on Holtby’s unusually not-good second half of the season, he probably makes that save in seasons past.
Holtby had no chance on the game-tying goal by Panarin, a two-on-one rush that spun around defenseman John Carlson as well. But he didn’t let another by him, and the Blue Jackets had some solid chances in the first overtime in particular.
He finished the night with 33 saves on 35 shots to give Washington its first win of the series. You can bet he’ll be back in goal for Game 4 after a clutch win.
Sergei Bobrovsky dynamite again: For the second straight game the majority of the spectacular, game-changing saves were made by the Russian netminder. Bobrovsky followed up his 54-save Game 2 with 42 stops on 45 shots in Game 3. Bob was bagged for previous poor playoff showings, but this will not go down as one of them.
FINAL – Overtime 2: Capitals 3, Blue Jackets 2
Washington started the second overtime by firing the first six shots on goal, but none of them sneaked past Columbus Blue Jackets’ goalie Sergei Bobrovsky nine minutes. Instead it was a fluky, bouncing, off-the-stick-off-the-shins-over-the-goal-line dribbler 9 minutes into the second OT that gives the Capitals life in the playoffs. Lars Eller was ultimately credited with a game winner that was ugly to watch, but beautiful to those wearing Washington across their chests Tuesday night.
Heading into this game, Eller led the team in total high-danger chances with five, three more than Alex Ovechkin. Eller had two more in Game 3, including the overtime game-winning goal.
The Capitals will head into Game 4 in Columbus Thursday night trailing 2-1 in the series and there now will at least be a Game 5.
End Overtime 1: Capitals 2, Blue Jackets 2
With the potential for a 3-0 series deficit just a goal away, Washington survived a penalty kill and will skate against Columbus in a second overtime. A back-and-forth frame yielded solid chances for both teams, with Braden Holtby coming up with a few clutch stops to prolong the action. Onward we go.
Another potentially pivotal penalty for Caps, but Jackets can’t score: After a frantic 15 minutes of overtime, in which several penalties on both teams went uncalled, the refs tagged the Capitals’ John Carlson for tripping after a speedy shift by the Blue Jackets with 4:18 remaining in the first extra period. Columbus managed several solid scoring chances in the first minute of the power play, but came up empty.
End of Period 3: Capitals 2, Blue Jackets 2
The game is in overtime. Again. Again … again. All three games this postseason have required extra time. While fans get free hockey, the media get free ulcers. In the meantime, digest this fact about the Capitals’ highly acidic playoff history:
Since 2005-06, the Capitals have now played 34 overtime playoff games. Only the Chicago Blackhawks (38, 23-15) have appeared in more. Washington, however, has a losing record — 14-19.
And for a franchise history littered with playoff misery, Washington has a chance to hit a new low for gut-crippling, eye-gouging, garment-rending agony.
Jackets tie it at 2: A strong shift for Washington ended with the puck in the back of the Capitals’ net. A cross-ice pass in the Columbus zone was missed by Dmitry Orlov turned into a two-on-one break between Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson and ended with a goal by Panarin. Both defenseman John Carlson and goaltender Braden Holtby sprawled to stop the puck, but neither could stop it.
Once again the Capitals took a lead into the third period and once again the Blue Jackets leveled it early in the period.
End Period 2: Capitals 2, Blue Jackets 1
For the second time in this series Washington leads 2-1 heading into the third period. In two previous games the game ended in Columbus’s favor. How will it go tonight? One thing will definitely warrant a close watch: Will Washington take any penalties? Ill-timed penalties led to key goals for Columbus in each of the first two games, and Washington has four power plays to Columbus’s two Tuesday night. In the playoffs, the penalty ledger is usually close to level by the end of the game, so the Capitals will want to make sure they don’t give the referees any excuse to raise their arms in a third period that could prove pivotal to their 2017-18 season.
Two slashes give Caps a 5-on-3 power play, and a goal: Washington enjoyed a 5-on-3 power play for 54 seconds with just under 6 minutes left in the second period after Jakub Vrana had his stick slashed into pieces not once but twice. John Carlson wasted no time scoring he go-ahead goal, one-timing home a Nicklas Backstrom pass through the slot with 1:32 remaining on the second penalty. The Caps are back in front 2-1.
The two penalties drawn by Vrana, one off the faceoff and another due to his speed, led to the go-ahead goal by Carlson. Vrana drew over a penalty per 60 minutes at even strength during the regular season, ranking him 58th out of 413 skaters playing at least 800 minutes.
Carlson now has 11 shot attempts on the power play against Columbus, second on the team to Alex Ovechkin. That was his first power play goal in the series.
It’s 1-1: That 2-0 lead would have looked pretty good for the Caps compared to the 1-1 score with just under 8 minutes left in the first period. Pierre-Luc Dubois whipped a wrist shot into the top left corner of the cage, beating Braden Holtby glove side to knot the score at 1 and reignite the Columbus crowd.
Connolly nearly makes it 2-0: Brett Connolly potted a juicy rebound after a wild flurry in front of the net at the 12:33 mark of the second to give the Capitals yet another 2-0 lead in this series … but wait!
The goal was challenged for offsides by Columbus and it was ultimately waved off after replay. For those who believe in ghosts, voodoo and the supernatural, this may actually have been a good thing, as Washington gave back both games in this series in which it led 2-0. Science and math would beg to differ, and a crucial call (which appeared to be correct on replay) went against Washington.
Wilson atones: Tom Wilson may have been criticized for his untimely penalties in all three games, but he helped make it right by scoring the Capitals’ first goal on a redirection with 14:08 to go in the second period. The goal was credited to Matt Niskanen, who sent the shot in from the right point, but it certainly appeared Wilson tipped it.
Too many men for Columbus for second period’s first power play: The Blue Jackets took the first penalty of the second period as discipline continues to be in short supply, with too many men on the ice in egregious fashion. It wasn’t just an extra man hopping off the bench in untimely fashion, there were six Blue Jackets involved in the defense for many seconds.
On the power play, the shorthanded team may have actually had the better scoring chances as a turnover by T.J. Oshie to Boone Jenner nearly resulted in a Blue Jackets goal. The penalty ended with the score still 0-0, however.
End Period 1: Capitals 0, Blue Jackets 0
Perhaps the winds have shifted for Washington, if only in that two first period penalties have not resulted in a momentum-shifting goal for Columbus. Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana both took penalties when the Capitals were in the offensive zone (though Wilson’s infraction came in the neutral zone) but the penalty kill and goaltender Braden Holtby kept the scoring ledger level. The Blue Jackets will have some power play time carrying over to the second period, however.
Neither the Blue Jackets nor the Capitals were able to generate many scoring chances at even strength or with the man advantage. Columbus put seven shots on net with four occurring in the slot or the crease. Two of those shots (one high-danger chance) were during its two power plays of the period. Five different skaters for Columbus created at least two scoring chances during the first period.
Washington created just one high-danger chance at even strength and one more on the power play. Only Ovechkin and Brett Connolly had multiple chances in the opening frame.
Washington outshot Columbus 11-9 in Period 1, and Columbus netminder Sergei Bobrovsky definitely had the more challenging saves to make. That said, he made them all and the teams are still goalless heading to the second.
Capitals come up dry on their first power play: Well, this is a new twist on this series. With both Game 1 and 2 chock full of power plays, we saw a wave of power play goals. Not so through the first two penalties of Game 3. After the Capitals killed off the Jackets’ first turn with the man-advantage, Columbus returned the favor after a penalty to Josh Anderson for interference. Whereas the PK unit was key for the Caps, it was Sergei Bobrovsky coming up huge for the Jackets, making a pair of clutch saves.
Tom Wilson. In the box. Again. Tom Wilson was the target of much criticism early in the series for taking unnecessary penalties. And he takes the first penalty in Game 3. His first two penalties resulted in Columbus goals. His third did not and the Blue Jackets didn’t get a shot on goal either.
Welcome to the Stanley Cup Playoffs: Christian Djoos is in the Capitals’ lineup for Jakub Jerabek tonight and the Blue Jackets seem to be giving him a warm welcome.
Columbus is crazy: Columbus has never won a Stanley Cup playoff series before, nor has it led a series 2-0. So it was understandable that the atmosphere was buzzing outside Nationwide Arena before Game 3 on Tuesday night. Live music played. Long lines of blue-clad fans stood queued up for beers despite an overcast sky and flakes of snow flurrying to the ground. Inside, the arena was rocking as both teams took the ice for warmups, and in the stands there were very few signs of white or red uniforms on fans who might have traveled from Washington. If the Capitals are to pull themselves out of this 2-0 hole, they will have to do it in front of a hostile environment of the highest order.
Hope for the hopeless: With a 3-0 series deficit more or less equivalent to a series loss based on history, Tuesday night’s Game 3 is a must-win for Washington. One potential sign things should go in the Capitals favor? Their luck has been wretched through the first two games.
Call it an excuse, but the Caps can claim they aren’t getting much puck luck at even strength in this series. They are 0 for 22 on high-danger chances, shots in the slot or crease, while the Blue Jackets have three goals on nine high-danger chances. The league average shooting percentage on high-danger shots was 13 percent in 2017-18. Had Washington enjoyed even average luck it would have added two more goals to the scoreboard.
Washington could get what it needs from the Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana line. With Vrana, who will fill in for the injured Andre Burakovsky, the trio outshot opponents 38 to 34 and had a 13 to 8 edge in generating high-danger chances during 70 even-strength minutes this season. Vrana also led the team in producing high-danger chances per 60 minutes (5.1). Alex Ovechkin was second (4.7) followed by Tom Wilson (3.7) and Lars Eller (3.5).
Braden Holtby: Trotz tabbed Philipp Grubauer to start the series, an understandable choice at the time with how Grubauer had outplayed Holtby down the stretch. But then Gruabuer was pulled through two periods Sunday night, having allowed four goals on 22 shots, and considering the Capitals have allowed nine goals through two games, a change in net to Holtby was the right call. He’s got the second-best all-time career postseason save percentage, but it’s unclear how Holtby will respond to getting the starting job back. He was 5-1-0 in the last six games he started with a .911 save percentage and a 2.67 goals against average. The two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, winner of the award in 2016, has had the worst season of his career: a .907 save percentage and a 2.99 goals against average.
Cam Atkinson: Atkinson scored two goals in Columbus’s 5-4 overtime win Sunday, and the 28-year-old has already matched his three-point output from five playoff games last year in just two this season. After Atkinson scored a career-high 35 goals last season, he missed 17 games this season because of a foot injury, and he finished with 24 goals. But he finished strong with 14 goals and 11 assists in the final 20 games of the season, and now he’s part of a Blue Jackets top line that has given the Capitals fits to start the series.
Immerse yourself in the Capitals’ postseason with The Post’s coverage of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs:
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly-Lars Eller-Devante Smith-Pelly
Alex Chiasson-Jay Beagle-Chandler Stephenson
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
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)