When the Washington Capitals needed him most, with emotions rising in a taut game against a longtime Metropolitan Division rival before an anxious Capital One Arena crowd, veteran Nicklas Backstrom was offered the role of hero Thursday. And he embraced it.
“I just think that the shootout, getting him going, it was a big thing for our team to have him go in and score a goal like that,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said of Backstrom.
Alex Ovechkin, who opened the scoring with a power-play goal in the first period, knew how crucial Backstrom’s strike was in a tight game against a division rival.
“It was big. It’s always these kind of games against Pittsburgh,” Ovechkin said. “It’s fun games to play because there’s a lot of emotion out there. It was actually a great hockey game overall. We started off really good and they came back in the second. It was a tight game.”
Evgeny Kuznetsov also scored for the Capitals in the skills competition. Richard Rakell scored for Pittsburgh in the first round, beating Kuemper (35 saves) with a forehand.
With both teams clinging to wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference, Thursday’s game could have playoff ramifications as the postseason race tightens in the season’s second half.
“It was a huge two points for us. That’s not really a secret,” Kuemper said. “We knew how big this game was coming into it. It took us the stretch, but these games feel really good when you get the job done. We played super hard, and we earned it tonight.”
Washington (26-19-6) opened an early lead in the first with a goal Capitals fans have seen countless times — an Ovechkin one-timer from the left circle off a seam pass from Kuznetsov. The goal was Ovechkin’s 32nd of the season (10 of which have come with the man advantage) and the 812th goal of his career.
The Penguins (24-15-9) were unfazed, however, and drew even early in the second period when Danton Heinen punched in a rebound after Kuemper lost the puck after gloving Drew O’Connor’s slap shot.
Marcus Johansson’s goal from the top of the left circle at 5:17 of the final frame briefly gave Washington a 2-1 lead, but Bryan Rust equalized with 7:08 remaining with a blast from the right circle.
“We were the better team in the first period, and then I think they bounced back a little bit in the second. But I felt like we played a good game for most of the 60 minutes, and that’s what we got to build on,” Johansson said.
The teams came into Thursday with 56 points apiece, but with Washington’s win, the Capitals moved into the first wild-card spot with Pittsburgh in the second. The Penguins, however, have three games in hand.
The playoffs remain a few months away, but the Capitals are keenly aware they do not have a lot of wiggle room.
“A lot of guys in here haven’t made the playoffs in quite a while, so that is not a trend we would like to start,” T.J. Oshie said Thursday morning. “It starts with commitment to each other in here and commitment to playing our way and playing the right way.”
Washington was without the injured Tom Wilson, but Backstrom and Oshie both saw extensive ice time after they missed Tuesday’s game in Colorado. Backstrom was dealing with a non-covid illness, and Oshie left the road trip early for the birth of his fourth child, Lucy.
Washington finishes with two games on the road before the NHL’s all-star break — Sunday in Toronto and Tuesday at Columbus.
Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ win:
Wilson suffered a lower-body injury Tuesday in Colorado, exiting after he blocked a shot with his right leg. Wilson struggled as he bent over and gingerly skated to the bench. He did not return. Wilson did not participate in Thursday’s morning skate, though Laviolette called Wilson a “game-time” decision.
Wilson has played in only eight games after he missed the first half of the season while recovering from offseason ACL surgery in his left knee.
Protas is healthy scratch
Aliaksei Protas was a healthy scratch against the Penguins in favor of Nicolas Aube-Kubel. Laviolette had praised Protas’s play against the Avalanche, then opted to leave him out against Pittsburgh.
Aube-Kubel was moved from the top line to the fourth line with Lars Eller and Garnet Hathaway. Aube-Kubel worked well with a physical Hathaway. He also set up Eller for an open shot on an odd-man rush in the second period, which DeSmith stopped.
Washington was 1 for 22 on the power play over its past nine games before Ovechkin’s first-period tally. The Capitals liked the direction the special teams unit was headed in recent games, but the results were not there.
The Capitals’ first power-play chance Thursday looked structured and had plenty of high-scoring opportunities before Ovechkin capitalized. Capitals players had talked in recent weeks that the power play would go through ebbs and flows through the course of the season and they weren’t concerned about the unit’s productivity.