Six times before that win, the Capitals had stitched together three straight victories, and six times this season they had failed before reaching four. So with those memories finally banished, Trotz looked straight ahead, into the cameras, and raised his right hand. He held up every finger except his thumb. He nodded and said no words.
“A ghost in our head,” center Nicklas Backstrom later called such struggles in those situations, and inside the home locker room, before the puck dropped at Verizon Center, the alternate captain reminded his teammates of the opportunity at hand.
Goaltender Braden Holtby responded with 30 saves, then three straight stops in the shootout, which was decided on a first-round strike from forward Evgeny Kuznetsov. Defenseman Matt Niskanen answered with his first even-strength goal this season. And together, the Capitals became just the second team to topple the Islanders beyond regulation this season, tightening the gap between them and the divisional summit, at last vacuuming up those ghosts.
“When your leaders are saying that, that’s always a good sign,” Trotz said of Backstrom. “He sort of challenged the group a bit.”
Two of Washington’s prior meetings with the Metropolitan Division leaders had ended with overtime defeats, with one of its own sitting inside the penalty box, undone by an untimely whistle. But even after forward Ryan Strome blasted a weak-side rebound and tied the game with 47 seconds remaining in regulation, the Capitals escaped the extra five minutes unscathed, then salvaged a series split.
Both sides had already proved the potential for a delicious best-of-seven series, should they meet this spring, and even a sleepy matinee invoked more evidence. Knotted with the Islanders in games played, five points behind them in the division standings, the Capitals saw this weekend’s back-to-back, continued Sunday against Philadelphia, as a prime chance to gain ground and entered the opening intermission knotted at 1.
While the high-octane Islanders, ranked second in the NHL in scoring, endured similar offensive struggles, they pounced on an odd-man rush and captured an early lead. On the weak side, defenseman Travis Hamonic gathered the puck alone and cranked a wrist shot that tumbled underneath Holtby’s glove, ringing off the far post and sending the small Islanders’ contingent of fans into a frenzy. The goal was Hamonic’s first since Nov. 26 and the first Holtby had allowed in the opening period in 11 games.
“They’ve got a good team,” Trotz said. “I looked at that game, hopefully a playoff series at some point. Two very good hockey teams that mirror each other in a lot of ways in terms of some style.”
But only once since Dec. 2 had Washington trailed entering the first intermission at Verizon Center, and Niskanen’s blast in the dying seconds ensured that note stayed intact. After his team’s offense flat-lined again, lasting more than 11 minutes without testing Chad Johnson with a shot on goal, including a power play that produced two offside calls and ended four seconds short on Kuznetsov’s high-sticking penalty, Backstrom pushed the puck forward and tore behind the net, searching for a window.
He found it in a late-trailing Niskanen, ushering the pass into the slot just before forward Colin McDonald arrived to help. Without an even-strength goal since signing the league’s most lucrative free agent contract July 1, Niskanen pummeled the puck over Johnson’s right shoulder, into the tight window between the goaltender’s mask and the near post, with 40 seconds left in the period.
“It was kind of a game of who’s going to execute better, who can get more pressure and which goalie’s going to make a bigger save at the right time,” Niskanen said. “That’s the kind of game it was.”
After a scoreless second period, both sides sprung to life.
Another of Holtby’s saves, this time on a long slapper from defenseman Johnny Boychuk, sent the puck gliding into the neutral zone, where forward Eric Fehr waited. He dumped ahead to Laich, then trailed. He gathered Laich’s pass, moved forward and launched. With all his strength aimed at jolting the Capitals awake, Fehr dropped onto one knee, cocked his stick back and unloaded with such force that his stick almost recoiled into his face. He raised both hands in celebration, but it didn’t last long.
The Verizon Center crowd groaned when a rebound bounced straight to Strome’s forehand and the Islanders celebrated their tying goal.
Once more for these teams, regulation had solved nothing. Only once Holtby atoned for the late goal by stopping Strome in the shootout could the Capitals climb their boards and finally celebrate a winning streak that hadn’t halted at three.
“Might as well get the fifth, too,” Backstrom said.