Here stormed the Washington Capitals, necromancers in red sweaters, raising themselves from the dead. They had watched the ghost of an old trade in former prospect Filip Forsberg score three points in his first visit to Verizon Center. They had replaced their starting goaltender before 15 minutes elapsed, with a backup making only his second appearance in nearly six weeks. They had scored 19 seconds into the second period and 20 seconds into the third. They had turned boos into roars. They had somehow shaped garbage into a game.
And now came time for the final push, when Justin Peters fled his perch with 1 minute 43 seconds remaining and six Capitals gathered for an offensive-zone draw, hoping to force overtime. After allowing three goals in the opening period for the first time since their third game, after sleepwalking through another sluggish matinee start, they took one last crack at a miracle.
Forward Alex Ovechkin pummeled a one-timer. Defenseman John Carlson had another blocked. Forward Troy Brouwer, whose two goals had awoken Washington, whiffed in the slot. But Mike Ribeiro’s redirection held up as the game-winner, and Nashville escaped with a 4-3 victory, becoming the first Western Conference team to clinch a playoff berth. Washington, meanwhile, began its toughest back-to-back of the season, which continues Sunday afternoon against the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, by laying eggs for breakfast despite a comeback that almost cleaned up the mess.
“I like our response,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “We dug ourselves a big hole, and we could’ve just sat there and took it. We didn’t take it. We went out there and tried to battle back.”
Trotz had insisted the emotions from facing his old club, the one he reared from its expansion days and helmed through 15 seasons, had dissipated and that closure had been attained after leaving Bridgestone Arena on Jan. 16. It was a pleasant return, even in defeat, marked by a standing ovation and a heartfelt tribute video.
The rematch inside his new rink, however, quickly adopted the opposite tone.
The absences of Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman Shea Weber, sidelined with an upper-body injury, and forward James Neal, who notched the game-winning goal against Washington at home, hardly mattered for the Predators. After Pekka Rinne survived the consequences of Cody Franson’s roughing minor and Mattias Ekholm’s hooking, penalties committed 65 seconds apart, Nashville began the onslaught.
Nine seconds after Ekholm was released from the box, Washington forward Curtis Glencross, logging his 500th career game, stumbled off the bench during a line change. He tried to hook a loose puck from Ekholm’s reach, but Ekholm snatched it, dashed across the slot and squeezed a perfectly placed backhander into the upper-right corner.
Then, 10 seconds after killing forward Brooks Laich’s tripping penalty, the Capitals tossed any lingering energy from the failed five-on-three into the gutter. Backed into their defensive zone and down one stick that defenseman Karl Alzner dropped, they watched goaltender Braden Holtby give up a rebound and Mike Fisher blast it through the netminder’s legs for a 2-0 lead.
“That was tough,” defenseman Mike Green said. “It was kind of deflating there. We maybe lost some momentum on that power play. Then for them to come back and get that lucky one, it’s unfortunate. But that’s no excuse. We should’ve been better.”
Once Forsberg, whose rookie-season brilliance already had become a lightning rod among Capitals fans, whipped the long-range missile that chased Holtby and summoned Peters, the club that drafted him 11th overall in 2011 began its long march back into contention.
It began with Brouwer, who bashed away a 12-game goal drought 19 seconds after intermission ended with a puck that skipped off defenseman Roman Josi’s knee and knuckled over Rinne’s head. Then, with defenseman Matt Niskanen boxed for holding, Brouwer cranked a long shorthanded slap shot, tabled by a neutral-zone takeaway from Laich, which handcuffed Rinne and brought the Capitals within one.
Nashville’s lead returned to two goals on Forsberg’s primary assist to Ribeiro, but much like Brouwer emerged from the first break bringing life, so too did Green at the start of the third period. Twenty seconds in, Niskanen trailed a rush, gathered forward Marcus Johansson’s drop-back pass and slid the puck over to Green, stationed inside the left faceoff circle. Green’s one-timer, his seventh goal this season, cut the lead to 4-3. The Capitals had risen, but they came no closer, left to reconcile the miserable start with the rally that followed.
“It’s crazy to think how there was two different teams playing tonight from our side,” Peters said. “When we just turn it on, it shows what we’re capable of doing.”