COLUMBUS, OHIO — Of Sergei Bobrovsky’s 27 shutouts, Tuesday’s might have been the easiest of the Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender’s career. He stood his ground in net, and while two pucks hit the pipe around him, he was hardly bothered otherwise. The vast majority of the saves he had to make were routine, and he was able to enjoy a good view of the shooting gallery his teammates established at the other end of the ice.
Though Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby made it a close game with his 29 saves, Washington lost, 3-0, to Columbus because of its offensive ineptitude, barely challenging Bobrovsky with 20 shots, 13 of which came in the third period. It was a one-goal game until there was 3:47 left, at which point Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno scored to make it a two-goal deficit, insurmountable for a Capitals team that struggled to generate much of anything in the Blue Jackets’ zone all night. Artemi Panarin added an empty-net tally with 10 seconds left.
“We just got outplayed the whole night,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
In the closing minutes of the game, fans at Nationwide Arena stood at their seats, many with their arms outstretched and flapping, imitating Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s signature goal celebration. A rivalry has blossomed between these clubs since their first-round playoff matchup last season, when the Blue Jackets won the first two games in Washington but ultimately lost the series in six as the Capitals stormed back with four straight wins.
Columbus has played two fewer games and trails Washington by just two points for second place in the Metropolitan Division, and if the playoffs started now, the teams would play each other again in the first round.
This was their fourth and final meeting of the regular season, and there was some intrigue after the way the last one ended a month earlier. After Panarin’s overtime winner Jan. 12, several Blue Jackets mocked Kuznetsov by doing his birdlike celebration on the ice. Kuznetsov chirped back at the time: “It’s nice to get some people to think about me, same as like in April last year,” he said.
When asked about the incident Monday night, Kuznetsov was good-natured about it.
“The guys have fun,” he said. “I’m not sensitive. . . . If they decide to do that, that’s fine with me. That’s nothing personal.”
He had been on a scoring tear since the Capitals’ bye week, putting up 12 points in the previous six games before Tuesday. As a reward for the good play, Coach Todd Reirden reunited him with captain Alex Ovechkin and right wing Tom Wilson, Washington’s top line from the postseason, and the trio was on the ice for three even-strength goals against the Los Angeles Kings on Monday. But the Blue Jackets did well to not only bottle up that line — Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Wilson combined for just one shot through two periods and four overall — but all of the Capitals’ forward combinations.
“We were starting in the [defensive] zone a lot, and we didn’t have that momentum, that carryover from the shift before,” Wilson said. “There really wasn’t much of that to make them feel like they were under any duress.”
Trailing by just a goal entering the third period, the Capitals got their first power play of the game 3:24 into the frame, an opportunity to spark their offense. But that man-advantage was disastrous; the Blue Jackets had three quality shorthanded chances, including a breakaway by forward Cam Atkinson that prompted a slash from defenseman John Carlson. That negated the power play, sending the teams to four-on-four.
Washington didn’t record its 10th shot on goal until there was 9:32 left in the third period, a wrist shot from defenseman Michal Kempny 40 feet away from the net.
“I think we just wanted an easy, skill game, and when you play teams like Columbus, they never let you do that,” Holtby said. “That’s why they’re good: They’re hard to play against. It’s a lesson learned that against these teams, you’ve got to be prepared to get greasy at times. We’ve done it in the past, so it’s just a matter of getting back to it.”
The lone goal of the first 56 minutes came 6:32 into the second period. A bad change by Washington led to a three-on-one rush for Columbus, and Anthony Duclair shot the puck through Holtby. Less than two minutes later, another poor line change hurt the Capitals. They were assessed a bench minor for too many men on the ice, putting the Blue Jackets on a power play for a third time. While Columbus generated six shots on its man-advantage opportunities to that point, Holtby turned away all of them, keeping the deficit at one goal when it didn’t feel that close.
“He did his part,” Reirden said, “and we weren’t able to find the back of the net with any of our chances.”