Henrik Lundqvist had won the first duel with Evgeny Kuznetsov, a glove save on Kuznetsov’s first-period penalty shot. But it was Kuznetsov who kicked up a leg as the Capital One Arena spotlight covered him. Just 38 seconds into overtime, Kuznetsov beat the New York Rangers goaltender to lift the Capitals to a 3-2 overtime victory, Washington’s fifth in a row.
“When you get wins, when you score the goals, when you make some big plays, you always feel confident,” Kuznetsov said.
Goaltender Braden Holtby ultimately played better. Holtby hadn’t played in more than a week after he was briefly sidelined with an apparent knee injury, but he showed no signs of rust, making 35 saves until Ryan Spooner beat him cleanly on a two-on-one rush midway through the third period.
That gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead, but New York didn’t record another shot on goal in the third period, and with Holtby on the bench for an extra attacker, Lars Eller tied the game with 1:05 left in regulation.
“Obviously, we should have guys in front, and he was by himself,” Lundqvist said.
“I had my stick free to shoot, so it was easy just to try and get it high,” Eller said.
Though the Rangers are well out of the playoff hunt, the Capitals learned how challenging an opponent they can be Monday night at Madison Square Garden, when New York was the better team over the final 40 minutes. Washington still won, 4-2, thanks to a four-goal first period, but the start of Wednesday’s rematch at Capital One Arena was more even. The Rangers put a whopping 19 shots on goal in the first period, with Kevin Hayes scoring on New York’s first power play.
Less than a minute after Hayes scored, Kuznetsov was sprung for a breakaway, but Rob O’Gara slashed him on the play. Kuznetsov was awarded a penalty shot, saved by Lundqvist’s glove save on Kuznetsov’s backhand.
“I wanted that penalty shot so bad, too,” Kuznetsov said. “Hank played very well, and he got me over there. I should score in the first period for sure. So many chances for me.”
The Capitals managed to tie the game in the last minute of the frame and take some momentum into the first intermission. T.J. Oshie had a takeaway at the neutral zone, carrying the puck in the other direction as his linemates followed on a three-on-two. Oshie found Nicklas Backstrom, who then set up Andre Burakovsky on the right side. Burakovsky beat Lundqvist for his 10th goal of the season.
As part of Coach Barry Trotz’s line juggling, he scratched wingers Jakub Vrana and Brett Connolly, two of Washington’s most productive players this season, because he said he wanted to “see what we have and give them some experience and sort of finalize some” decisions before the playoffs. Shane Gersich made his NHL debut after he left the University of North Dakota early to sign with the Capitals on Friday.
“I loved it,” Trotz said of Gersich’s debut. “I thought he was dangerous. Every time I put him on the ice, he seemed to create something. . . . If he’s got better than that, I’m really excited for sure.”
The Capitals couldn’t take advantage of two power plays in the second period — one Alex Ovechkin blast from the left faceoff circle clanged off the post — and Washington’s penalty kill allowed the Rangers just five shots on goal during a four-minute power play for high-sticking. Holtby had recorded 26 saves by the time the horn sounded for second intermission, an encouraging performance for a goaltender who had struggled the second half of the season.
On Wednesday night, he looked like the Holtby who has been a Vezina Trophy finalist the past two seasons, calmly and confidently turning away puck after puck to buy his teammates more time. Trotz has been alternating between Philipp Grubauer and Holtby, a competition of sorts for who will be the postseason starter.
“If that’s an indication of where [Holtby’s] game is going — I know where Grubi’s is at — then we’re in good shape to have two goaltenders that have played valuable minutes for us and are a little bit rested,” Trotz said. “I’m just looking to have two really good goaltenders, and down the road, we still have some games left, and we’ll see where we are.”