They had been speared in the groin and slashed in the knees and hacked in the gut, willing victims to the frustration of their visitors, human piñatas stuffed only with bliss. “Bring it on,” forward Jason Chimera thought, because when the New York Islanders began lashing out with their sticks, the Washington Capitals would greet such abuse by standing there and smiling. It meant they had wormed themselves into the Islanders’ heads. It meant, at least for Thursday night, they had won.
Little about the previous three meetings of this Eastern Conference first-round series had suggested anything more than a sliver of space separating these Metropolitan Division foes, until the Capitals’ 5-1 demolition blew a cavern between them in Game 5 at Verizon Center. After falling behind for the fourth time in five games, they received two goals from a rookie, one from a defenseman and two more from offense-starved veterans.
They hammered 35 shots onto goaltender Jaroslav Halak, gashing an Islanders blue line depleted by injury, then six more at backup Michal Neuvirth, who arrived in relief once the avalanche mercifully ended.
And when tempers boiled over midway through the third period, when the officials ejected two Islanders with 10-minute misconduct penalties for chopping forward Brooks Laich on the same faceoff, there was nothing left to do but accept the anger, nurse the bruises and scurry ahead to Game 6, one victory from advancing into the conference semifinals.
“Anytime you see frustration in the other team’s eyes, it’s a good thing in the series,” said Chimera, who squeezed inside the near post the third-period goal that knocked Halak from the game. “You want to keep that frustration level and keep it in the next game.”
They could see the end dangling in the distance, the chance to close the doors on Nassau Coliseum for good. The Islanders and Capitals will meet Saturday on Long Island, and one more victory for Washington will end this bone-shaking, nerve-rattling series. One more win will launch the Capitals into the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they have not been since 2011-12, where they have not advanced beyond since 1997-98. In the aftermath of their biggest postseason win in five years, they clung to the luxury of over-analyzing the smallest mistakes.
“It was one game,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I don’t think momentum carries to the next game. You have to create your own momentum, and we have to do that. We have to be better than we were. I didn’t like our first period as I’d like to. We got to clean that up a little bit and see if we can put 60 minutes together. We haven’t done that.”
Still, aside from falling behind when forward Josh Bailey creamed a puck past goaltender Braden Holtby less than six minutes in, the Capitals found few specifics to nitpick.
They handled the Islanders’ revenge missions against forward Tom Wilson, whose crushing check had injured defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky in Game 4, and survived 31 hits during the first period. They lightened the workload for Holtby, who had stopped 76 shots in consecutive overtime decisions earlier this week, allowing just 23 pucks to reach him. Their penalty kill remained perfect too, snuffing the 11th and 12th minors committed this series.
Offensively, they enjoyed the emergence of forward Evgeny Kuznetsov , who celebrated his first goal by firing an imaginary arrow into the stands, then appeared almost disinterested after his second, because by then the rout had already been clinched. They reveled after defenseman Karl Alzner’s second goal in four playoff games, one more than he ever scored in the 32 before it, then rode more secondary scoring from Chimera and Laich, with superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom held off the scoresheet.
Then they took every question about this almost-perfect night, about their ability to coax those misconducts from fourth-liners Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin, and played down the significance like it meant nothing.
“Yeah, I would say it’s obvious,” Wilson said when asked if the Islanders began losing their composure. “I mean, they got a couple guys thrown out late in the game. The thing is with those, it’s a fresh start next game, so we’re gonna be right back to square one, and we’re gonna continue to do the same things and stick to our system and do our thing.”
Later, once he had addressed the Capitals and hammered home the message about moving on, Trotz fielded one final question from behind the podium. It was about Holtby, and the significantly fewer pucks he faced. Instead, Trotz veered his answer off course. He had the last word, and with it wrapped a bow on Game 5.
“We did what we wanted to do tonight and we’re going to park tonight as soon as I leave this room and look at what we’ve got to do for next game,” he said, and then he left the room.