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Evgeny Kuznetsov sends Caps to all-star break with OT winner in Columbus

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT)

Evgeny Kuznetsov's seventh goal of the season gave the Capitals the win Tuesday night. (Paul Vernon/AP)
5 min

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In their last game before a 10-day break, the Washington Capitals were determined to bank a pair of pivotal points against an inferior opponent Tuesday night.

The visitors started strong by jumping to a two-goal lead, but the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Eastern Conference’s last-place team, rallied to force overtime in a game that never should have made it that far.

Washington finally pushed the Blue Jackets aside when Evgeny Kuznetsov scored just 26 seconds into the extra period for a 4-3 victory at Nationwide Arena, but the Capitals again struggled to put together a full game.

“I thought we started okay and got lost at times along the way,” said Coach Peter Laviolette, who pointed to “decisions with the puck.” “At the end of the day, guys stayed with it. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t clean — stayed with it, and nice play in overtime to get the second point.”

Washington led 3-2 heading into the third period, but the Blue Jackets’ Johnny Gaudreau tied it on the rush with 7:16 to go. Washington was on its heels as regulation concluded, but Kuznetsov ended up the hero by taking a neat pass from Marcus Johansson and beating Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo with a wrister from the right side. It was his first tally since Dec. 29 — ending a goalless stretch of 14 games — and his seventh of the season.

“It is unexpected, right?” Kuznetsov joked about his overtime winner. “No, it was a nice faceoff. … I don’t know what happened. I decided to shoot the puck, and good thing happened.”

Last time out: Capitals get swept away by the Maple Leafs during a 5-1 loss in Toronto

Before Kuznetsov’s late heroics, defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk was the Capitals’ highlight of the night, lighting the lamp twice for the first time in his NHL career. His six goals this season set a career high; he had five for Chicago in the 2016-17 season.

“You don’t expect to see him on a nightly basis popping in two goals, but when he does, it certainly is a bonus,” Laviolette said.

The Capitals (27-20-6) still hold the Eastern Conference’s first of two wild-card spots with 60 points. Pittsburgh, the second wild card, has 57 points and four games in hand. Buffalo (56), the New York Islanders (55) — who acquired high-scoring Bo Horvat in a blockbuster trade with Vancouver on Monday — and Florida (54) are not far behind.

Washington went 6-7-1 in January. With the All-Star Game looming Saturday and their bye week up next, the Capitals will not play again until Feb. 11, when they visit NHL-best Boston.

“I believe in our team always, and eventually we get a goal in overtime [against Columbus], which is nice,” Kuznetsov said. “Everybody can smile now, and [it] makes big difference — lose two in a row [after Sunday’s 5-1 defeat in Toronto] or split one and one — so it is important for us.”

Washington goaltender Charlie Lindgren made just his third start of January and his first since Jan. 17. He looked shaky at times but managed to turn away 31 shots. Korpisalo finished with 30 saves for Columbus, which fell to 15-32-4.

Garnet Hathaway got Washington started when he tipped a Lars Eller shot past Korpisalo 5:06 into the first period. It was his eighth goal of the season and his sixth in 14 career games against the Blue Jackets.

Van Riemsdyk’s first goal, on a sneaky snap shot through traffic from the blue line, gave the visitors a 2-0 lead with 5:32 left in the period, but the Blue Jackets answered quickly. Defenseman Andrew Peeke got Columbus on the board 12 seconds later; his shot from the high slot was a double deflection — off Alex Ovechkin’s stick, then van Riemsdyk’s pants — that beat Lindgren.

The back-and-forth game continued with van Riemsdyk’s second goal at 8:26 of the second. Kuznetsov made a nice feed from behind the net to a wide-open van Riemsdyk in front.

“Especially when Kuzy has the puck, he has it on a string,” van Riemsdyk said. “And if you don’t see the lane, he has a way of contorting himself, moving the stick, making lanes for you. Kind of lingered there longer than I normally would, and [Kuznetsov] made a heck of a play.”

Eric Robinson cut the Capitals’ lead to 3-2 at 11:03. He finished a two-on-one rush with Mathieu Oliver after a T.J. Oshie turnover.

Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ win:

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Dry January

Washington struggled to jump-start its offense in January. Coming into Tuesday’s game, Washington had averaged 2.69 goals in the month, which ranked near the bottom of the NHL. In seven of its previous 11 games, Washington had scored two goals or fewer.

Some of the Capitals’ top players remain in lengthy goal droughts. Eller has not scored since Dec. 27, Anthony Mantha has not scored since Dec. 31, and Conor Sheary has one goal in his past 16 games.

Johansson’s strong stretch

As many of his teammates struggle, Johansson has emerged as a steadying force. He has two goals and two assists in the past five games and has worked well with fellow Swede Nicklas Backstrom, who is looking better and better since his return from hip resurfacing surgery in early January.

Washington re-signed Johansson to a one-year, $1.1 million contract in July, a somewhat surprising move after he struggled at the end of last season. He has 13 goals and 14 assists in 53 games.