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Capitals survive third-period scare, open Stanley Cup defense with 4-2 win over Carolina Hurricanes

The Capitals celebrate their Game 1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)
Game 1
Carolina Hurricanes vs. Washington Capitals

Series: Capitals lead, 1-0; Next game: Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, Capital One Arena; TV: NBC

Recap: Three early goals and late final scramble gave the Capitals their first win in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Read more

Highlights: Check out all the key moments en route to the win. Read more

Postgame reading: How does the Stanley Cup change a team, especially one that chased the pinnacle for years with a penchant for making playoff life as hard as possible? As Jerry Brewer writes, the answers proved inconclusive in Game 1. Read more

Final score: Capitals 4, Hurricanes 2

Quick start, strong finish highlight Capitals’ Game 1 win

By Samantha Pell

It was only fitting that the Washington Capitals’ two most tenured players got the team’s Stanley Cup title defense started Thursday night, combining for three first-period goals among a sea of red at Capital One Arena.

With chants of “back to back” echoing throughout the building, center Nicklas Backstrom and winger Alex Ovechkin sent the place into a frenzy. Backstrom scored twice in about a three-minute span, and Ovechkin, the captain, added one of his own about five minutes later. The three-goal margin would be enough, barely — and not without some scary moments in the third period — and the Capitals added a late empty-netter to cap a 4-2 win in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Two quick scores by Carolina forward Andrei Svechnikov in the third period trimmed the Hurricanes’ deficit to one with more than 12 minutes remaining. The building’s first-period excitement quickly transformed into something else — a nervy finish that required blocked shots, two penalty kills and the type of resilience the Capitals turned to last spring for the franchise’s first title.

The Hurricanes kept pressing, but the Capitals responded and finally found some breathing room when Lars Eller scored on an empty net with 37 seconds remaining to seal the win.

“We got the first one. That’s a good thing,” Backstrom said. “We got a good start there. . . . But overall, we got fortunate a little bit. They are a good team. They are aggressive all over the ice, doesn’t give us a lot of time out there. As a team we can play a little bit better.”

This playoff opener offered a stern reminder to the Capitals of something they learned in the first game of last season’s Stanley Cup run: When it comes to the playoffs, no lead is safe. A year after the Capitals were up 2-0 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first period of Game 1 and ultimately lost, 4-3, in overtime, Washington nearly found itself in a similar position. But with the experience of last spring behind them, the Capitals never allowed Carolina an equalizer.

With Game 2 here Saturday, the Capitals acknowledged the scrappiness and fight a young Carolina team with minimal playoff experience showed in the third period. Players noted how this game took on a similar feel to Wednesday’s Columbus-Tampa Bay opener in which the Lightning, winner of the Presidents’ Trophy, broke out to a 3-0 lead only to lose 4-3 at home.

“We knew it was not over. . . . We could see what happened [to Tampa Bay] last night. But it is the playoffs,” Ovechkin said. “You never know what is going to happen. Lucky bounce, and you can be back in the game.”

Defenseman John Carlson said getting tested, then weathering Carolina’s third-period storm, would help the Capitals moving forward. With so many highs and lows from last postseason in the minds of players, it was good to be able to get that experience again, not only for the veterans but also for the playoff newcomers such as center Nic Dowd and defenseman Nick Jensen.

“It was good to face some adversity and make us realize how much each play means,” said Carlson, who had an assist on each of the Capitals’ first-period goals. “At the end it was a lot of big-time blocks, big-time clears and guys paying the price, and that is what we are going to need there. No team is just going to roll over no matter what the score in the playoffs.”

The Capitals and their fans had waited through 82 games of the regular season to get back to this moment. And as the crowd stood watching highlights of last season’s glory in the moments before the puck dropped, the arena was about ready to erupt. The hosts matched the energy of the building by getting off to the fast start.

Carolina, in its first playoff game in a decade and with a roster full of players in their first postseason game, came in as the underdog and struggled in the face of the early adversity.

After the Capitals took their first shot on goal 9:34 into the first period, Backstrom scored on their second at the 9:58 mark with a wrister over the glove of goaltender Petr Mrazek. Mrazek, who had split time with Curtis McElhinney in the regular season, came into the game with a .914 save percentage over the course of 40 games.

“Tremendous game from Nick,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “His consistency is off the charts in terms of the game that he brings night after night. And then when it comes time to elevate your game, he’s right there. Doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the way he plays.”

Backstrom’s second goal came at the 13:10 mark of the first, from the left edge of the crease while on the power play. That goal gave him 100 career playoff points (33 goals and 67 assists), one of 95 players in NHL history to reach that mark.

Ovechkin capped the first period with a power-play goal of his own with 1:54 left in the frame.

The Capitals were unable to generate much offense in the second period, but neither were the Hurricanes. Carolina outshot the Capitals 11-4 in the second, with goaltender Braden Holtby coming up with 21 saves through two periods.

The Capitals were unable to generate much offense in the second period, but neither were the Hurricanes. Carolina outshot the Capitals 11-4 in the second, with goaltender Braden Holtby coming up with 21 saves through two periods. He finished with 27.

Carlson’s three first-period assists tied a Stanley Cup playoff record for most helpers in a period.


Tonight’s statistical stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom: two goals and four scoring chances, two from the slot

2. John Carlson: three assists — all in the first period, tying the NHL’s playoff record — and the only skater for Washington on the ice for more than five scoring chances at even strength.

3. Andrei Svechnikov: two goals, two scoring chances and on the ice for 14 unblocked shot attempts. He’s also the 10th teenager in NHL history to score two or more goals in an NHL playoff game.

This game went almost exactly as you would expect. The Hurricanes generated more shots and scoring chances, but had trouble converting. Carolina ranked second in even-strength shots and first in high-danger scoring chances during the regular season but converted each at a below-average rate. Washington, on the other hand, emphasized quality over quantity and capitalized (see what I did there?) on their power-play chances, getting goals from Backstrom and Ovechkin in the first with the man advantage.

Things got dicey in the third but this was overall a solid win by the defending champs. According to WhoWins, when a team with home-ice advantage takes a 1-0 series lead in the first round, it goes on to advance 74 percent of the time and wins Game 2 60 percent of the time. No pressure, Washington.

— Neil Greenberg

The Capitals hang on for the 4-2 win in Game 1, and they can thank their penalty kill for ultimately hanging onto the lead in a too-close third period. Holtby finished with 27 saves, and Lars Eller’s empty-net tally sealed it.

The Capitals’ penalty kill was a weakness during the regular season, but it’s been much improved since the trade-deadline additions of forward Carl Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen. With Washington clinging to a one-goal lead, Jakub Vrana’s hooking minor 11:14 into the third period made Capital One Arena a little antsy. But a successful kill injected some life back into the stands.

We have a game, folks. After taking a beating from Brooks Orpik for two periods, Svechnikov is getting his revenge with two goals in the first eight minutes of the third period. The 19-year-old Russian was selected No. 2 overall by the Hurricanes in the most recent draft and put up 20 goals with 17 assists, albeit with none of that production coming on the power play. Capital One Arena has gotten a little quiet with Washington’s lead trimmed to one goal.

The Hurricanes are on the board with Andrei Svechnikov’s goal 5:07 into the third period, but goaltender Petr Mrazek deserves a lot of credit here. He opened the frame with back-to-back saves on breakaways by Nic Dowd and then Carl Hagelin. Then he made point-blank stops on Lars Eller and Brett Connolly. That gave the Hurricanes momentum, and Svechnikov skated around defenseman John Carlson to drive the net and score.

With a 3-0 lead, the Capitals largely locked it down in the second period. The Hurricanes got more chances and the better of the shot count, 11-4, but Washington managed the puck pretty responsibly to keep Carolina off the board. With the Capitals earning four power plays to the Hurricanes’ one, Washington will need to play a pretty disciplined third frame because whistles tend to even out in the playoffs. Holtby has looked really sharp to this point with 21 saves, and he’s getting good support in front of the net with the Capitals not allowing the Hurricanes many second-chance opportunities on rebounds.

Brooks Orpik often gets negative attention due to his analytical metrics but he’s been strong on the puck tonight.

The 39-year-old blue-liner has been on the ice for three chances against at even strength, none from the slot or the crease, limiting the damage done by Carolina’s third line of Svechnikov, Martinook and McGinn, his main assignment.

Orpik has also logged 1:36 on the penalty kill, yielding two shot attempts, one to Aho and the other to Niederreiter. He’s also delivered six hits and blocked a shot.

— Neil Greenberg

End of Period 2 | Capitals 3, Hurricanes 0

Brooks Orpik is playing in his 150th postseason game tonight and he’s making his mark, especially on Carolina rookie Andrei Svechnikov. Orpik’s tallied six hits and made Svechnikov pay on a few of those. As a defensive defenseman, Orpik is a rare breed in the modern NHL, but the playoffs are when he’s at his best. The 38-year-old has said he’s “year to year” with this potentially his last season, but the Capitals brought him back because of how much of a tone he can set in spring. It’s not with points but with how hard he is to play against, especially in Washington’s own end.

Goaltender Braden Holtby hasn’t had to make many tough saves so far, but he’s been sharp when necessary. On Carolina’s first power play of the game, he made a good shoulder save on Sebastian Aho from the right faceoff circle. The Hurricanes have 14 shots on goal so far, but that might have been their best look of the game. All 10 of their shots in the first period were kept to the outside so despite some early sloppy play by Washington, the defensive effort has been pretty solid.

The Hurricanes did what made them successful during the regular season: tilt the ice in their favor. But like the lead up to the playoffs, they had trouble cashing in. However, Washington could be playing with fire.

Carolina’s top line of Niederreiter, Aho and Williams generated six unblocked shot attempts and allowed zero while the third line of Svechnikov, Martinook and McGinn did the same. That’s 12 unanswered shot attempts (nine shots on goal) at even strength in the first period — hardly a recipe for success.

— Neil Greenberg

End of Period 1 | Capitals 3, Hurricanes 0

The “back-to-back” chants at Capital One Arena started before puck drop and the Capitals are certainly doing their part with a dominant 3-0 first period. Washington’s power play is now 2 for 2 after Ovechkin scored his first of the postseason with a rebound in front. Defenseman John Carlson already has three assists. The Tampa Bay Lightning squandered a three-goal lead last night, though, so the Capitals need to keep their foot on the gas. The Hurricanes surprisingly gave Ovechkin a lot of room on the power play — he got three shot attempts off before finally burying one — so they’ll need to adjust that. Carolina might also want to stay out of the penalty box in the second and third periods.

Washington’s power play wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire to end the regular season and Carolina entered this matchup with a top-10 penalty kill. But the Capitals made it look easy on the first power play of the game. Captain Alex Ovechkin was high-sticked by Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk, and Washington scored less than a minute later. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s terrific feed found Backstrom backdoor for a 2-0 lead, with both goals coming on four shots. Backstrom has one playoff hat trick in his career, in 2010 against the Montreal Canadiens.

Center Nicklas Backstrom scored the Capitals’ first goal of the playoffs with a wrister over Petr Mrazek’s glove. It took Washington 9:34 to get its first shot of the game, with Backstrom’s goal just 24 seconds later. While the Capitals concentrate on generating quality shots, the Hurricanes are all about quantity, making Carolina an analytics darling. But putting a bunch of easy shots on net could just get Washington’s Braden Holtby hot while Mrazek arguably should have had Backstrom’s tally.

Eight minutes in, and it looks like both teams are trying to send a message with the physicality. Washington’s big, bruising defenseman Brooks Orpik had a big hit on Carolina rookie Andrei Svechnikov. Tom Wilson made his presence known with a check on Hurricanes center Jordan Staal. Carolina’s Justin Faulk has tallied four hits and Micheal Ferland has three. While laying a bunch of hits might not mean much in one game during the 82-game regular season, physicality can accumulate over the course of a playoff series, something that was a recipe for success for the Capitals last spring. They’re one of the heavier teams in the league.

We’re about to get underway here at Capital One Arena and while the Capitals won all four of their meetings against the Hurricanes in the regular season, the first night of NHL playoff action showed how little that means for the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning, who ran away with the league’s best record, lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night, and Dallas and St. Louis also beat higher-seeded opponents. Look for Carolina to put up a lot of shots — the Hurricanes led the NHL with 34.4 per game — while Washington counters with superior forward depth. The Capitals’ third line especially, with two 20-plus goal-scorers on wings in Jakub Vrana and Brett Connolly, could be a difference-maker in Game 1.

Postgame reading

Immerse yourself in the Capitals’ postseason with The Post’s coverage of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Capitals learn Stanley Cup championship carry-over can carry them only so far

How well do you remember the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run? Take our quiz.

Tom Wilson has seemingly clean up his act. Can he walk that line in the playoffs?

Svrluga: After Stanley Cup win, Capitals now know what is possible.

Babies conceived during Caps’ Stanley Cup run re-create iconic moments

Upstart Hurricanes don’t feel like the underdogs against reigning champion Capitals

As Capitals prepare for Stanley Cup defense, Todd Reirden’s son faces ongoing battle of his own

Expect a wild NHL postseason, with the Flames, not the Lightning, as Stanley Cup favorites