Both times, the fans at Capital One Arena held their breath. The Capitals, who were already playing without most of their stars, couldn’t afford to lose any more, even as they rallied to a 2-1 overtime win. The outcome gave the Pittsburgh Penguins the East Division title — given the tiebreakers involved, the Capitals needed to win in regulation — but it also ensured the Capitals will finish second and have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Washington (35-15-5, 75 points) avoided a disaster when Wilson returned to start the second period but didn’t have the same luck with Oshie. He was ruled out for the rest of the game after his right leg appeared to get caught up with Aube-Kubel in the corner. Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette did not have an update on Oshie’s status after the game.
“It’s kind of like a ‘Here we go again,’ ” said forward Conor Sheary, who had the overtime winner. “That’s kind of the way it’s been the last few games. We never want to see those guys, especially all the guys in our top six, that are either taking a rest or getting injured right now. It’s never fun to see that this late in the year.”
And while the Capitals walked away with a win — thanks to Lars Eller tying the score with 39.8 seconds left in regulation, then Sheary converting in overtime with 59.4 seconds left — their injury issues are only getting worse as they limp to the finish line.
“I don’t know how we pulled it off, to be honest,” Eller said. “I can’t remember ever missing so many guys and guys dropping during the game. Really a lot of guys showed a lot of character today and stepped up in different ways. We didn’t force it. We just stuck with our game, and eventually we got rewarded.”
Washington started its penultimate regular season game without five regulars: forwards Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov; defenseman John Carlson; and goalie Ilya Samsonov. The Capitals played with 11 forwards, one fewer than the norm. Laviolette said the team did not choose to rest any players.
The Capitals’ last game of the regular season is Tuesday at Capital One Arena against the Boston Bruins, who could be their opening opponent in the playoffs.
Those gaping holes in the lineup left the Capitals with little offensive firepower, and neither team scored in the first two periods. Scott Laughton finally got the Flyers on the board with 16:18 left in the third. Eller and Sheary took it from there.
“To be down 1-0 like that late in the game, battle back and tie it up and went into overtime, I thought we did a good job in overtime as well,” Laviolette said. “That was a real gutsy game with what we are dealing with right now.”
Craig Anderson (28 saves) was in Washington’s net Saturday after Vitek Vanecek took the loss in the Capitals’ 4-2 defeat to the Flyers a night earlier. Anderson, who turns 40 this month, was making his fourth appearance of the season and only his second start. Anderson entered training camp on a tryout basis after spending the past 10 seasons with the Ottawa Senators. He is in his 18th NHL season.
“I thought he was really good,” Laviolette said. “I thought he gave us a chance to win.”
Ovechkin, Backstrom and Carlson were out with lower-body injuries. Kuznetsov and Samsonov were unavailable because of the NHL’s coronavirus protocols after landing on the covid-19 list Tuesday for the second time this season. Before that, they were unavailable for Monday’s game at the New York Rangers for disciplinary reasons, and Samsonov was shifted to the taxi squad.
Ovechkin missed his 11th game of the season; he has missed seven of the past eight. He participated in the Capitals’ optional morning skate Saturday — the first time he had skated in any official capacity since he left Monday’s 6-3 win at the Rangers after one shift.
The previous time the Capitals had played without Ovechkin, Backstrom and Carlson was April 10, 2016, when they decided to rest players in the season finale.
While there were plenty of absences in the lineup Saturday, the good news for the Capitals was the return of defenseman Justin Schultz. He is dealing with a lower-body injury and had missed six of the previous eight games.
Defenseman Michal Kempny, who has not played this season after undergoing surgery for a torn Achilles’ tendon in October, could be part of the Capitals’ plans for the postseason. But on Saturday night, while on a conditioning assignment with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., he left with an injury, reportedly after he collided with a member of the crew that cleans the ice during stops in the action.
Also on Saturday, Capitals forward Garrett Pilon, a third-round draft pick in 2016, made his NHL debut. He was the fourth Capitals draft pick to make his NHL regular season debut with the team this year, joining Vanecek, Brian Pinho and Connor McMichael.
“There was just so many encouraging things to see today, and it wasn’t easy for us,” Eller said. “We were down most of the game and killing off penalties late in the third. We weren’t given anything today. We really had to work for it, and I think that makes it feel so much sweeter for all of us.”
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