Artemi Panarin did a victory lap around the Washington Capitals’ zone, raising his arms as he skated in a circle and players in red jerseys dropped their heads and moved out of his way. He was this game’s playoff hero, the latest image of Washington postseason disappointment.
The Capitals squandered a two-goal first-period lead and then another one-goal lead in the final five minutes of regulation before falling to the Columbus Blue Jackets in overtime, 4-3, in the first game of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. The blame is easy to place: three penalties in the third period that led to two power-play goals.
“You’ve got a lead there, you’ve got to be smart,” Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer said. “Don’t make it hard on yourself basically. We kind of shot ourselves in the foot a little bit.”
The Capitals took a 3-2 lead 5:12 into the third period when forwards Devante Smith-Pelly and Jakub Vrana streaked into the offensive zone, Vrana speeding and spinning around Columbus players before stopping at the goal line to send a perfect pass across the crease to Smith-Pelly. He smacked the puck past goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, and chants of “D-S-P” followed. Washington, it seemed, had found its new playoff hero.
But the Capitals’ lack of discipline spoiled that story line. Washington was clinging to a 2-1 lead at the start of the third period when forward Tom Wilson hit center Alexander Wennberg in the corner. Wennberg crumpled to the ice, and Wilson went to the box for charging. Columbus’s power play was the seventh worst in the league during the regular season, but with Thomas Vanek left alone in front of the crease, he beat Grubauer just 13 seconds into the man-advantage.
Wennberg, meanwhile, suffered an “upper-body” injury on Wilson’s hit and did not return.
“I’m just trying to finish my check there,” Wilson said. “I’m obviously not trying to take a penalty. That cost us the game. That’s a critical moment. I’ve got to be better and maybe pass up on that hit. We’ve got the lead there, so maybe a big hit’s not needed.”
After Smith-Pelly lifted the Capitals to a lead, Washington was called for two more penalties. Forward Andre Burakovsky’s tripping infraction with less than five minutes left in the game was the costly one, as Seth Jones tied the game to force overtime.
Grubauer, in just the second playoff start of his career, allowed three goals on 25 shots in regulation, and 12 of the shots he faced had been on the power play. He beat out Braden Holtby, a Vezina Trophy winner, for the top job, but the two had split time in net for the last month in the regular season. Coach Barry Trotz said Grubauer’s play was “fine,” and he didn’t commit to sticking with him for Sunday’s Game 2.
“Right now, I’m going to re-evaluate that,” Trotz said. “Philipp’s body of work has been good. . . . We’ll sit down and re-evaluate all the goals, evaluate our team and where we’re at and go from there.”
Before the Capitals unraveled with costly penalties, it had been a Blue Jackets infraction that had cost Columbus dearly in the first period. The Blue Jackets were one of the league’s most disciplined teams during the regular season, called for the second-fewest minor penalties. But the game turned on a boarding major assessed to Columbus’s Josh Anderson, who hit Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny into the glass with 2:37 left in the first period.
Kempny was down on the ice in apparent distress, eventually skating off with the team trainer, who held a towel to Kempny’s face. He didn’t return, and his status going forward is unclear, a potential blow to a blueline that had been stabilized by his arrival just before the late February trade deadline.
Anderson, who scored 19 goals with 11 assists this season, was ejected, and Washington got a five-minute power play. The Capitals’ man-advantage unit needed just 29 seconds to score, Evgeny Kuznetsov’s shot getting tipped by Blue Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray to redirect the puck through Bobrovsky’s legs. Washington still had more than four minutes of power-play time remaining, and 29 seconds after his first goal, Kuznetsov scored a second, firing from the left faceoff circle on a rush into the zone. The Capitals went to first intermission with a 2-0 lead and 2:23 of power-play time to start the second period.
“There was plenty of game left,” Blue Jackets Coach John Tortorella said. “We just knew we just had to stay with it. We’re still took too many penalties.”
But Washington bailed out Columbus with penalties of its own. The two teams had never met before in the playoffs, each battling their own postseason demons. The Blue Jackets are chasing a first series victory in franchise history. The Capitals have won plenty of first-round series, but they haven’t gotten past the second round in two decades.
“You’ve got to be smarter,” Wilson said. “That’s playoff hockey, that’s what it’s all about is momentum and not giving the other team life in crucial moments of the game. There’s some situations out there that we can obviously manage better.”