The Washington Capitals may not be that familiar with the intricacies of the Vancouver Canucks as an opponent, considering the two teams only see each other twice a season at most, but they entered Friday night fully aware of something very significant: Vancouver is as desperate as the Capitals are to find a way back into the playoff picture.
That knowledge didn’t prevent Washington from relinquishing a two-goal lead in the third period, but their own dire need for points eventually triumphed. Mike Green scored the game-winner midway through the third period and Evgeny Kuznetsov tallied his first three NHL points as the Capitals secured a 4-3 win over the Canucks at Verizon Center.
“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot a little bit there and made it difficult on ourselves, but we stuck with it,” Green said. “Obviously we need the points. We were fortunate tonight. Sometimes you get those waves throughout periods that momentum shifts, and they had it there for a bit. We’ve got to make sure that we eliminate that when we notice it right away.”
The victory was just Washington’s second in seven games, pushing them to 72 points, one behind Philadelphia for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. The catch: the Capitals have played more games than any of the other teams vying for that spot — the Flyers have three games in hand; Detroit is also one point ahead of the Capitals and has played two fewer games — and the Caps don’t own any tiebreakers.
Jaroslav Halak, making his fourth consecutive start, finished with 38 saves and withstood Vancouver’s late surge for another equalizer to earn praise from his teammates for stabilizing the team’s effort. And Kuznetsov shined in just his third NHL game, notching assists on each of the Capitals’ final three goals.
On this night, it didn’t matter so much where the contributions came from, only that they combined to achieve the desired result.
“Everyone’s fighting for points, so we knew they weren’t going to give up,” Joel Ward said. “We’ve lost a couple previously [after giving up the lead], but in this game we stuck with it. We still knew that we could score some goals and tried to simplify a few things and knew that we’ll get our chances eventually.”
The game started off well enough when, after a stretch of games with inadequate starts, the Capitals found a rhythm in the early stages and scored first for the first time since March 2, a six-game drought.
Eric Fehr sent a shot wide, but the puck bounced off the end boards to the right side of the net, where Fehr pursued and flung it back across the goal mouth. Vancouver netminder Eddie Lack (17 saves) was out of position as he scrambled to follow the bouncing puck over to the left side, but he wouldn’t get there before Ward swatted it into the open net for a 1-0 lead at 8 minutes 17 seconds and his 19th goal of the season.
Momentum continues to be a fickle mistress for these Capitals, however, as they were shorthanded less than a minute later when Jay Beagle tripped Kevin Bieksa. The Canucks didn’t convert on the power play, but they created several quality chances and knotted the game at 1 just 35 seconds after it expired on a goal by Jordan Schroeder.
With Canucks resident pest Tom Sestito in the penalty box for knocking rookie Tom Wilson off-balance and hard into the boards, Alex Ovechkin scored 8:28 into the second period to make it 2-1.
Ovechkin’s 45th goal came in familiar fashion, blasting a one-timer from the top of the left circle past Lack off a feed from John Carlson. The initial pass to Carlson came from Kuznetsov, though, stationed on the half wall of Washington’s second power-play unit, and that secondary assist stood as his first NHL point.
Kuznetsov’s most dazzling moment Friday night came on a primary assist just more than four minutes later. On a rush, he settled the puck with his skate and then kicked it up to his stick for a booming slap-pass from his spot on the left-side boards across the ice to Wilson in the right circle. Wilson fired a shot past Lack’s glove side for his third goal of the season to make it 3-1 at 12:35 of the second period.
“If you watch the replay, I was a little bit surprised,” Wilson said of the forceful yet perfectly placed pass. “I had to handle it. It was a pretty crisp pass but no complaints. You’ve got to expect it at this league with the players you’re playing with and the caliber of player that he is. I was just going to the net, made sure I got past Sestito and buried it.”
Two-goal leads are far from a comfortable position for Washington, though, as it brings out the team’s tendency to try and protect a lead rather than continue to dictate the flow of a game. In the third period, that allowed the Canucks to set their own tone and score two goals 3:06 apart by Shawn Matthias and Nicklas Jensen, to tie the game.
Watching a two-goal lead evaporate for the 12th time this season, the fifth time in the third period, seemed to spark Washington. The Capitals made a frantic push to reclaim the lead, and on a play that began with Kuznetsov protecting the puck down low on the cycle wound up with Green firing a wrister past Lack’s glove hand just past the midway point of the period for a lead that would finally last.
“It wasn’t a great night, some great moments in the game, but it wasn’t a great hockey game for us,” Coach Adam Oates said.“But we figured out a way to get it done.”