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Comeback Caps rally past powerful Panthers to grab a 1-0 series lead

Game 1: Capitals 4, Panthers 2

T.J. Oshie looks back toward the net after his game-winning goal in the third period Tuesday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

SUNRISE, Fla. — In a flash, Washington Capitals winger T.J. Oshie ripped through the middle of the ice, taking a peek at Florida Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky before looking left. Waiting on that side was center Nicklas Backstrom; he slickly found Oshie, who got between two defenders and flicked the puck past Bobrovsky with ease.

Just like that, Washington’s optimism was soaring again. Oshie’s goal at 10:37 of the third period held up as the winner Tuesday night in a 4-2 Game 1 victory over the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers at FLA Live Arena. Evgeny Kuznetsov had scored less than three minutes earlier, meaning Florida had coughed up a 2-1 lead entering the final period. Lars Eller produced the final score on an empty-netter with less than a minute left.

“Typical Nicky fashion, [he] sauced it through a guy’s legs and right on my tape,” Oshie said. “I just redirected it, didn’t see it go in — so he had to come tell me that we scored.”

In the regular season, Florida did not lose a game in regulation when leading after two periods, finishing 39-0-1. Tuesday’s game was the first time the Capitals not only overcame a third-period deficit to win a playoff game since the clinching Game 5 of the 2018 Stanley Cup finals, but it was also their first road playoff win — excluding the 2020 postseason, when the pandemic forced the playoffs to be played in two Canadian cities — since that night in Las Vegas when the Capitals claimed the NHL crown.

Florida, the Atlantic Division champion, the NHL’s top regular season team and the heavy favorite in this Eastern Conference first-round matchup, gave away home-ice advantage and suddenly is on its heels. Washington, with Vitek Vanecek (30 saves) holding down the fort in the crease, has taken control despite being a massive underdog — but could be without Tom Wilson, who exited early in the first period.

“We believe [in] ourselves,” Kuznetsov said. “This game of course could give us lot of positives. ... We have a veteran group of guys and we have great coaches — they’re going to make adjustments and they’re going to say right words. We know it’s going to be long series and it’s going to be hard every game.”

Kuznetsov tied the score at 2 with a smooth breakaway move that beat Bobrovsky with 11:46 left. A dominant performer in the Capitals’ run to the Stanley Cup in 2018 who has struggled in the postseason since, Kuznetsov was set up by Alex Ovechkin, who stripped Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar at the Florida blue line.

“That’s why he’s legend, right?” Kuznetsov said of Ovechkin’s poke check.

Ovechkin made a victorious return to the lineup after missing the final three games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. He skated 17:36 and put four shots on goal.

The Capitals looked dead in the water before Kuznetsov’s goal, trailing 2-1 after the Panthers provided a strong answer to Wilson’s opening tally at 3:47 of the first. Sam Bennett got some time and space up the middle and ripped a shot from the high slot past Vanecek at 17:55, a deflating goal to end a solid period for Washington. Florida moved ahead just 43 seconds into the second: Claude Giroux gathered a juicy rebound with his left skate before he swiped it past Vanecek.

Kuznetsov and Oshie made that inconsequential, and the Capitals will try to extend their series lead in Game 2 here Thursday night.

They may have to do so without Wilson, who was injured on the shift after his goal — a power-play bullet off a Bobrovsky rebound following an Anthony Mantha shot. It was not clear how Wilson got hurt, but he took the worst of a hit he tried to throw on Weegar along the boards. Wilson didn’t play after that, recording only 91 seconds of ice time on the night. Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said afterward that Wilson had a lower-body injury and was being evaluated.

“We are hoping for the best,” Oshie said. “I think everyone knows he is a pretty tough guy, so hopefully he will be out there with us in a couple nights.”

If Wilson, who had a career season, cannot play Thursday, the Capitals are likely to turn to a rookie — Connor McMichael or Axel Jonsson-Fjallby — to fill his spot in the lineup. Neither has played in a Stanley Cup playoff game.

Also, defenseman John Carlson left the game late in the third period after he took a hard hit from Bennett. The Capitals offered no update on his status after the game.

The Capitals, who started the postseason on the road for the first time in 10 years, had a solid game plan. They were defense-first to counteract the high-octane Panthers’ speed. Bobrovsky, who hasn’t fared particularly well against the Capitals in his career, was impressive while racking up 34 saves, but he couldn’t make the key stops late. It wouldn’t be a surprise if 21-year-old backup Spencer Knight, a 2019 first-round pick, makes an appearance at some point in this series.

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In the other net, Vanecek looked solid despite some early errors.

“He did a great job,” Kuznetsov said. “He save when he have to save. That second goal, that was on me [on] the rebound. Sometimes it’s going to happen. Overall, I think he play great.”

Washington’s goaltending issues have taken center stage all season, with Laviolette’s decision between Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov for Game 1 something close to a coin flip. The goalies split starts in the regular season, and both had stretches when they looked capable of being the long-term answer — and both had troublesome patches when they looked anything but.

Laviolette said Tuesday morning that he gave Vanecek the first crack at the Panthers because his “body of work” was better. Vanecek started Game 1 of the postseason last year against Boston but was hurt early and didn’t return as the Capitals fell in five games.

Vanecek said getting Tuesday’s start was a “great feeling” that he hopes will continue as the series moves forward.

“First game is always important because you’re feeling really good after that,” Vanecek said. “The guys was buzzing today, the defense was tight, and the offense was really good.”

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