“We weren’t trying to put on a show,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We were just trying to play our game.”
Their best arrived on the grand stage with windy conditions and a late-game power outage. It came against a talented Toronto club that was a fierce opponent in the first round of the playoffs last season. In a nationally televised outdoor game, the first NHL one at a service academy, the Capitals flashed their potential with the postseason roughly a month away, reminding everyone that they can put on a show simply by playing their game. If only the team could play in the elements during the playoffs; Washington is undefeated in its past three NHL outdoor games.
“That group game, I think you see it [last game against] Ottawa a little bit, and you see it tonight,” forward Tom Wilson said. “It’s good for the group to see that. Pushing forward, you have that confidence, and you know that the group can play that way. It’s important in crunch time. That’s a pretty complete effort.”
For all of the pageantry and spectacle surrounding this game, it also ultimately was a game Washington desperately needed after a middling February. The Capitals were 6-6-2 last month, struggling because of a leaky defense. The team had stayed at or near the top of the Metropolitan Division, but its rocky play with less than 20 games until the playoffs was cause for concern. A quiet trade deadline also was deflating, especially as other contenders in the Eastern Conference made splashy moves.
Perhaps most alarming was that goaltender Braden Holtby had lost six straight starts entering Saturday in a career-worst stretch. But Coach Barry Trotz gave his top goaltender a vote of confidence by naming him the starter for this marquee game, and Holtby was hopeful that two days of practice leading into it would make a difference. He made 27 saves, and his teammates bailed him out for a change. Both times Toronto scored, the Capitals answered with a goal of their own within a minute.
“Obviously, you always want to have a response after their goal,” Holtby said. “But I think that went for the whole game. I think we stuck to our game plan, regardless of the situation. We converted on our chances. We earned our chances.”
Several players raved about the condition of the ice, and the Capitals had the advantage of playing with the wind at their backs in the first period, flying when they skated into the Maple Leafs’ zone. A power play less than three minutes into the game led to a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov, his 20th of the season and his third in the past two games. But 90 seconds later, Toronto tied the game when Zach Hyman deflected in a shot from Roman Polak.
That was the Maple Leafs’ first shot of the game, an ominous start for Holtby. But Washington answered just two shifts later, when Tom Wilson set up a goal from Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin’s celebration was fitting for the big stage, dropping down to one knee and swinging his arm in a massive fist pump. That marked his 40th goal of the season, and it has him just two goals away from 600.
“Forty is nice, but 50’s better,” Ovechkin said. “I still have time to do that.”
He certainly didn’t need to rush Saturday night as other stars rose to the spotlight. On the Capitals’ second power play of the period, Kuznetsov started to skate around the back of the Toronto net, backhanding the puck to Backstrom as he went. Backstrom scored on his second whack to lift Washington to a 3-1 lead.
Toronto’s Nazem Kadri cut the Capitals’ lead 7:22 into the second period, a puck that Holtby didn’t seem to see as it sneaked in between him and the post. Holtby was screened on the shot, but it was the kind of tally he probably would lament if not for his team’s quick response. With the fourth line on the ice, defenseman John Carlson skated up to the net and scored on a slick feed from Chandler Stephenson. Forty-three seconds had elapsed between Kadri’s goal and Carlson’s.
And if there wasn’t enough evidence of the Capitals’ good mojo in outdoor games, rookie Jakub Vrana raced down the ice and against the wind 10:49 into the second period, beating Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen five-hole. That marked Vrana’s first goal in 2018, ending a 25-game drought. Andersen was yanked from net in favor of Curtis McElhinney, the first time Andersen has been pulled from a game all season.
And with that 5-2 lead, the lights went out at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium halfway through the third period. The delay lasted 15 minutes, and the crowd thinned. The fans who stayed flipped on their cellphone flashlights.
“A couple guys thought it was an effect at first,” Wilson joked. “Maybe there was going to be a surprise concert or performance or something.”
The Capitals already had stolen the show.