Alex Ovechkin had two goals in Game 6. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Game 6

Washington Capitals 6, Columbus Blue Jackets 3

Series: Capitals win, 4-2

• Washington started the series with its back against a wall, but four straight wins push the Capitals through to Round 2.

• Top takeaways: Penalty kill, and that Alex Ovechkin guy, helped turn the series. (Read More)

• A frantic start to the third period saw four goals in the first nine minutes, two by each team, but Washington never let Columbus get closer than 5-3. The Capitals added an empty-netter with 14 seconds remaining and won 6-3. Washington advances to face Pittsburgh in Round 2. (Read more)

• Chandler Stephenson has impressed in his promotion to the top-six forward corps. (Read more)

• Blue Jackets Coach John Tortorella has evolved, but he hasn’t lost his fire. (Read more)

In a tight series, Washington’s back was to the wall, then it broke through
by Isabelle Khurshudyan

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Washington Capitals celebrated like it was any other victory. Goaltender Braden Holtby straightened in net as his teammates calmly left the bench and skated over to hug him one-by-one. The mood in the locker room was happy but subdued.

Washington beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 6-3, in Game 6 to win the first-round Stanley Cup playoff series between the teams, four games to two. For a team that seemed to accomplish so much, the Capitals merely met their own high expectations.

“I think we accomplished what we believed we could from the start of the series,” Holtby said nonchalantly. “Obviously, enjoy it for a bit, rest up and prepare for the next one.”

After falling into an early two-games-to-none series hole, losing both of the first two games at home, the Capitals won four straight playoff games, three of which were on the road, for the first time since 1990 to advance to the second round for the fourth consecutive season, a first in franchise history.

The journey to this point was rockier with a roster that is less talented and less experienced, but after experiencing growing pains throughout the season, Washington is back to exactly where it was last season, preparing for a second-round series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. As they were in this series and throughout this season, the Capitals are confident in the face of external doubt.

“Obviously, you never know what’s going to happen, but we just believed in each other,” said captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored two goals. “There was no panic. We knew that we’d have to take one game at a time. . . . We started believing more. We could see everybody stepping up and playing great hockey and give us success.”

In the six games against Columbus, Washington rode its stars on a power play that scored in every game, a goaltender who had initially been beat out for the starting job, and secondary scoring that came through in the timeliest of moments. Game 6 was a culmination of all three, as the Capitals answered every Blue Jackets push with one of their own.

Washington had struggled to protect leads in this series, and Blue Jackets center Pierre-Luc Dubois’s slap shot cut Washington’s two-goal lead to one within the first three minutes of the third period. The Capitals responded quickly, once again deflating the crowd at Nationwide Arena. Third-line winger Devante Smith-Pelly scored his second goal of the series with a clear shot from the left faceoff circle on a rush to make it 4-2. Defenseman Christian Djoos was called for interference 4:39 into the period, but within a minute, Chandler Stephenson scored on a shorthanded breakaway to give the Capitals a three-goal cushion.

Washington then had to withstand a furious Columbus push for the final 14:30, what Holtby called the hardest period of hockey he had played. Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno scored his second goal of the game with 11:38 to play, and an interference penalty by Evgeny Kuznetsov gave Columbus a late power play. The Capitals killed their 17th straight penalty in the series. Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was pulled for an extra attacker with three minutes left, and Washington survived that, too, capping the win with an empty-net goal by Lars Eller. Holtby finished with 35 saves.

“We’ve had lots of different adversity through this year than maybe in the past,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “We’ve grown up a little bit in some ways that we understand our core group is really, really strong. They believe in each other.”

After Washington had fallen into its 2-0 series deficit, Ovechkin matter-of-factly said the team would return to Capital One Arena with the series tied. The Capitals then won Games 3 and 4 in Columbus to back up Ovechkin’s word. Trotz acknowledged that Columbus was the better team in Washington’s Game 5 overtime win, and Blue Jackets Coach John Tortorella was so confident in his group that he twice said Columbus would return to Capital One Arena for Game 7.

After the Capitals closed out the series in Game 6, Tortorella repeatedly commented on how fiercely Washington had defended in the series. For most of the season, that appeared to be the team’s greatest weakness because offseason roster turnover forced the Capitals to part with three blue-liners. The pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen suffocated Columbus’s top players, especially Artemi Panarin, who had seven points in the first three games and none after that. Djoos was a healthy scratch in the first two games and shined in the final four, assisting on Ovechkin’s first goal of the game for his first point. Washington blocked 23 shots Monday.

“The better team won,” Tortorella said. “Give them credit. I thought they played a complete game. We thought we might be able to get to them offensively, but they were stingy.”

The defensive turning point in the series seemed to come with a change in net. The Capitals started goaltender Philipp Grubauer in the first two games, and after he had allowed eight goals in the two losses, Trotz turned to Holtby, the Vezina Trophy winner just two years ago. Though his struggles in the second half of the regular season caused him to lose the starting job to Grubauer, Holtby has the second-best all-time career save percentage in the playoffs. He entered Monday’s game with an impressive .936 save percentage and 1.66 goals against average in this series, and he was Washington’s best player as the team reeled off three straight wins to move to the verge of advancing.

Until the final second ticked off the clock Monday, Holtby was in position, his eyes on the puck. As Eller’s empty-net goal sent fans to the exits in disappointment, Holtby took a knee with his mask lifted up, perhaps appreciating what he and his team had just pulled off. And then he pushed his mask back down and continued to go about his business.

“I think we’ve had a quiet confidence to ourselves that we just take it game by game this year,” Holtby said. “That’s what we did in the series. We didn’t get too high or low. We just focused on the next game and believed we could win.

Top takeaways

Adversity answered: From the time the final horn sounded in Game 2, the series seemed bleak for Washington, a team long plagued by playoff ghosts. And then the Capitals won four straight games, three of them on the road in Columbus.

Is this the show of resolve that can help carry the Caps over their playoff hump?

It’s never easy, but this one was a little easier: With Washington leading 3-1 to start the third period, a blatant trip by Matt Calvert on Caps defenseman Christian Djoos resulted in the Blue Jackets’ second goal of the game and gave Columbus life just after a penalty kill at the start of the third period had clearly sapped the reserves of the fans at Nationwide Arena.

Then the Capitals struck not once but twice, on goals by Devante Smith-Pelly and a shorthanded tally by Chandler Stephenson. But the Blue Jackets didn’t fold and Nick Foligno added his second of the night to keep Columbus in striking distance. Then a poorly timed, and needless, penalty by Evgeny Kuznetsov with about 7 minutes remaining gave Columbus another chance. The penalty kill came up big and the Blue Jackets would get no closer.

Penalty kills: Columbus’s power play unit had been the bane of Washington in Games 1 and 2, with the Blue Jackets scoring four pivotal goals with the extra man to swing the series early. Since then? Washington entered Game 6 killing 12 of the previous 12 Columbus power plays. Monday night, the Capitals killed off all four of the Blue Jackets’ power-play opportunities. This was a huge factor in the series shifting back to Washington’s favor.

Russian Machine marches on: Throughout his career, Alex Ovechkin has been derided as a player who has not performed in the postseason, but after tonight he has 51 goals in 103 playoff games, with another 47 assists. That’s nearly a point per game, and his two goals Monday night helped power Washington to the second round.

Only five active players (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, Patrick Kane and Ryan Getzlaf) have a better points-per-playoff-game rate than Ovechkin.

It’s the playoffs. It’s Round 2. It’s the Penguins: Go figure.

In-game analysis

Lars Eller ends it with empty-netter; Washington wins: The Washington Capitals are on to Round 2, where a familiar nemesis awaits them.

While Columbus threatened in the second half of the third period, the Blue Jackets could pull no closer than a two-goal deficit. An empty-netter by Lar Eller sealed it.

Washington will now face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

Foligno keeps Columbus close: A three-goal lead for Washington was trimmed to two when Nick Foligno scored his second goal of the game with 11:38 remaining. It’s not over yet.

Stephenson scores a shorty: The third-period has ebbed-and-flowed in rapid fashion. With one team seizing momentum only to hand it back shortly there after. But then, on a Columbus power play, Washington’s Chandler Stephenson scored a short-handed goal to give Washington its biggest lead of the game, 5-2.

Columbus closes in once more … only to watch Caps pull away again: Shortly after a sharp Washington penalty kill ended the Blue Jackets’ power play to start the third period, and further drained the reserves of the fans at Nationwide Arena, a missed tripping call led to a goal by Columbus’s Pierre-Luc Dubois just 2:25 into the third period to reignite the Jackets and pull the score to 3-2.

Barry Trotz was displeased.

And then Devante Smith-Pelly happened. And in the brief exchange of players with hyphenated names, the Capitals forward rifled home a goal over Sergei Bobrovsky’s glove to put Washington back up by a pair of goals, 4-2.

End of Period 2: Capitals 3, Blue Jackets 1

It was nearly the perfect end to the period for Washington, but a roughing penalty on Chandler Stephenson with 7 seconds left in the period gives Columbus some hope, and a good scoring opportunity, to start the third.

A kill to start the period would further suck the energy from the Columbus crowd. A goal? Well, then the “2-0 lead” memes will start flying around Twitter.

It hasn’t all been the forwards playing well for Washington. John Carlson and Michal Kempny help make stuff happen from the blue line. With them on the ice skating alongside the top line of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Wilson, Washington has a 6-to-4 scoring chance advantage at even strength with more than half of those chances (five) coming in the slot or crease. Wilson has two of those high-danger chances, both up close in the crease against Bobrovsky.

Ovechkin strikes again and Caps lead by 2: A questionable holding call by Seth Jones on Alex Ovechkin with 2:50 remaining in the second period gave Washington a power plan and an opportunity to pull away from Columbus. After squandering some solid chances to do so throughout the game, Washington took advantage on a one-timer from Ovechkin.

Washington now leads 3-1 and has taken some wind out of Columbus’s sails.

Ovechkin answers and Caps again lead, 2-1: The game was trending towards Columbus after the Blue Jackets got on the board, but the Capitals’ top line did exactly what its supposed to in big situations, dominating control of the puck, with some dynamic puck-handling by center Evgeny Kuznetsov, hard-hitting by Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson and finally a finish from Ovechkin, who swatted a rebound back into the Columbus net.

Washington regains the lead, 2-1, with 7:10 to go in the second period.

Blue Jackets tie it up: The wave had been building after the penalty kills, Columbus turned its momentum into a tying goal from Nick Foligno who snapped home a wrister from the top of the left circle with 11:20 remaining in the second period. The game had threatened to get away from Columbus, but instead they’re right back in it and the score is level.

Caps get a 5-on-3 and a chance to pull away, but can’t: Josh Anderson took a high-sticking penalty right off the draw with 30 seconds left in the Capitals’ first power play, clipping Brett Connolly. The Blue Jackets killed the 30 seconds of 5-on-3 time and get the crowd into it, then whipped them up a few more decibels after keeping the Caps off the board for the rest of the man advantage.

That seems like a missed opportunity that could loom large for Washington.

Blue Jackets get game’s first power play, but can’t score: Columbus needed a spark and got one when the Caps struggled to clear their zone and Nicklas Backstrom ended up taking a hooking penalty. Brady Holtby was more than a match for Columbus, however as he made two sensational saves, one on a shot by Artemi Panarin and another on a sneaky pass to the far post to a teammate that Holtby got with his leg pad.

The Caps continued to lead and then earned their own power play shortly after the Backstrom penalty expired.

End Period 1: Capitals 1, Blue Jackets 0

Shortly after the 10-minute mark, the Blue Jackets threw a tricky deflection on net, but Braden Holtby stoned the tip from Cam Atkinson to keep the score level. As the Capitals took the puck the other direction, a nifty move and nuclear missile of a shot by Dmitry Orlov literally left Blue Jackets netminder Sergei Bobrovsky cringing as the puck whistled over his shoulder.

The Caps kept the pressure up after that and closed the period with a 1-0 lead and a

Meanwhile, Holtby had to deal with just two high-danger chances in the first period, both from the top line, with Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois each putting a quality shot on net.

Their line mate, Artemi Panarin, got off to a hot start at the beginning of the series (seven points in first three games) but has been quiet over the past three games: no points and just five shots on net.

Washington’s defensive pair of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov has held Panarin’s line to just one shot on net in first period of Game 6.

Stephenson working out: Chandler Stephenson was a questionable replacement for Andre Burakovsky on Washington’s second line, but give credit to Barry Trotz for knowing what would work. Since Stephenson has been on the line with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie the trio has outshot opponents 38 to 22 with a 3-to-1 goal differential at even strength. Stephenson also got his third assist of the series on the Dmitry Orlov goal in the first period.

Caps strike first on Orlov slap shot: A fake by defenseman Dmitry Orlov sent Artemi Panarin skidding out of position, then Washington’s Russian blue liner skated to the high slot and dropped a hammer that would make Thor envious, beating Sergei Bobrovsky and giving the Capitals a 1-0 lead in Game 6.

Slow start for both teams: Not much in the way of threatening scoring chances through the game’s first 10 minutes. Columbus likely had the best chance as a puck skittered around the low slot, but no Blue Jacket could get a stick on it. Shots are 4-3 in favor of Washington.

Mama said what?: The Columbus Blue Jackets skated out for pregame warmups for Thursday’s Game 6 against Washington with LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” blaring at Nationwide Arena. On one hand, it was fitting given the first line of the classic track begins with the lyric: “Don’t call it a comeback.” But down 3-2 after Thursday night’s Game 5 overtime loss, the only team that can knock anyone out of the playoffs tonight is Washington.

The Blue Jackets might have to attempt to rally from their series deficit with a much more subdued crowd Thursday night; rainy conditions in Columbus shut down the usual pregame raucous atmosphere outside the arena, and a large number of seats on the secondary ticket market were still available with less than a half-hour before opening faceoff.

The Holtbeast cometh: Braden Holtby may have been the backup heading into this series, but his performance in net has not only surpassed Philipp Grubauer’s, it’s been a much tougher workload as well. Grubauer saw 4.5 high-danger chances per 60 minutes at even strength during his two games in net whereas Holtby has seen 10.3 per 60 in his four games. Luckily for the Capitals, Holtby has a higher save percentage against these chances (.886) than Grubauer (.667) did.

The Capitals power play has been great: This is something Columbus needs to worry about, and Blue Jackets Head Coach John Tortorella said as much, telling reporters if you give the Caps “more than three [power plays in a game] you’re in trouble.”

Washington is generating close to 100 shot attempts per 60 minutes in this series with the man advantage, almost double that of the Blue Jackets. Washington is also doubling up Columbus in actual goals scored with a significantly higher quality of shot, according to the expected goal model found at the hockey analytics site

T.J. Oshie leads the team in scoring chances created on the power play (11), with Alex Ovechkin (10) close behind him. More than half of Oshie’s chances (six) have come in the slot or the crease. Ovechkin doesn’t have as many high-danger chances as Oshie (three) but his shots on net have created three rebounds, more than the rest of the team combined.

Postgame reading

Immerse yourself in the Capitals’ postseason with The Post’s coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs:

John Tortorella is evolving as a playoff coach. But he hasn’t lost his fire.

It’s not just you: The Caps really do play an absurd number of overtime playoff games

Nicklas Backstrom, the picture of the Capitals’ playoff pain, is now the image of their joy

John Carlson continues to build on stellar postseason reputation

Andre Burakovsky needs surgery, out for rest of the first round

With minutes piling up for Capitals and Blue Jackets, fatigue could become a factor

Seth Jones is following his father’s path — on ice, not the basketball court

The D.C. sports trifecta didn’t happen, but Caps’ double-OT win was a jackpot moment

‘Weird things happen’: Lars Eller’s game-winner sums up Capitals playoff hockey

Capitals’ Tom Wilson knows he has to be smarter and stay out of the penalty box

Capitals-Blue Jackets Game 3: In a playoff plot twist, Washington’s familiar script ends with a win

History not on Caps’ side, but they’ve erased 2-0 hole against John Tortorella before

As Capitals run into another ‘hot goalie,’ they face their own net dilemma

Capitals’ Kuznetsov, Blue Jackets’ Panarin shared a rink in Russia and the NHL playoff spotlight

Washington’s expected lineup

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), 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)
Philipp Grubauer
Scratch: Pheonix Copley

Columbus’s expected lineup

Artemi Panarin-Pierre-Luc Dubois-Cam Atkinson
Matt Calvert-Alexander Wennberg-Josh Anderson
Oliver Bjorkstrand-Nick Foligno-Boone Jenner
Thomas Vanek-Mark Letestu-Brandon Dubinsky

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), Sonny Milano

Sergei Bobrovsky (starter)
Joonas Korpisalo