No team in NHL history has lost the first three games of a playoff series in overtime, but when the Capitals and the Columbus Blue Jackets went beyond 60 minutes for the third time in as many games on Tuesday night in Columbus, the Caps were staring the possibility of that adverse piece of history right in the face.
Having dropped the first two games of their first-round playoff series to the Jackets in the extra session, the Caps were facing the grim specter of a third straight sudden death setback in Game 3 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.
Lars Eller’s first playoff goal as a member of the Caps kept Washington from that dire fate, and a three-game series deficit. Eller scored on a rebound of a Brett Connolly shot at the nine-minute mark of the second overtime, lifting the Caps to a 3-2 victory and halving Columbus’ lead in the series to 2-1.
“It was a real ugly OT winner goal,” says Eller. “I had a feeling it could be one of those. It doesn’t make the win less sweet.”
Game 4 is here in Ohio on Thursday night. With a victory in that game, the Caps would wrest the home ice advantage away from the Jackets.
The first period produced no scoring, and a few decent chances on both sides. Making his first start of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, Caps goaltender Braden Holtby made a couple of good stops to paper over some turnovers in bad areas, and Columbus counterpart Sergei Bobrovsky made a nice glove stop to deny Jakub Vrana’s bid on a three-on-one Caps transition rush.
Columbus started the second period with just under half a minute’s worth of power play time, but the Caps killed it off without incident and several minutes later they scored the game’s first goal for the third time in as many games in this series.
Tom Wilson raced into the right wing corner to get to a dump-in ahead of the Columbus defense. Wilson swept the puck around the back of the Columbus cage for Alex Ovechkin, who put a sharp pass out to Matt Niskanen at the opposite (right) point. With Wilson and Kuznetsov providing traffic in front, Niskanen let a shot fly, and Wilson tipped it past Bobrovsky for a 1-0 Washington advantage at 5:552 of the middle period.
The Caps appeared to have doubled that lead to 2-0 when Brett Connolly scored off a goalmouth scramble at 8:09. But the Jackets issued a coach’s challenge, alleging that Connolly himself was in the zone ahead of the puck on the play. The subsequent replay confirmed the Columbus theory, and the game remained 1-0.
Just past the midpoint of the middle period, the Jackets tied it up. From deep in his own end, Jackets defenseman Seth Jones fed Artemi Panarin at the center line. Panarin gained the zone on the left side, then went cross-ice for Pierre-Luc Dubois. From the top of the circle, Dubois zipped a wrist shot past Holtby high to the glove side, making it a 1-1 game at 11:18 of the second. The goal was the first of Dubois’ playoff career.
When the Jackets ran into some penalty trouble late in the middle frame, the Caps regained the lead. Jakub Vrana drew a slashing call on Columbus center Brandon Dubinsky, and just over a minute later, Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray was also boxed for slashing Vrana, giving the Caps a two-man advantage of 54 seconds in duration. The Caps needed only half of that time to retake the lead.
Nicklas Backstrom won the critical face-off in the offensive zone after Murray’s penalty, and seconds later he sauced a pass from the bottom of the right circle for John Carlson, whose blast from he top of the left circle beat Bobrovsky high to the blocker side with 5;17 left in the second.
Panarin pulled his team even on the prettiest goal of the night early in the third period. When Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov was unable to tame a bouncing puck at the Washington line, Cam Atkinson chipped it behind him and took off on a two-on-one rush with Panarin. Atkinson and Panarin played catch all the way up the ice, with Panarin finishing on a one-timer from the bottom of the left circle at 4:12.
From then on, it was a goaltending duel and both netminders were on top of their respective games. Columbus had the better of the chances in the first overtime, and the Jackets had the only power play of the extra session, too.
Washington came out with more jump in the second overtime, generating some chances before the Jackets tried to assert themselves and to seize the momentum.
Just past the midpoint of the second overtime, the Caps came up ice on a rush with Devante Smith-Pelly carrying into Columbus ice. He slid a pass across to Connolly who fired a shot that Bobrovsky couldn’t quite handle; he scissor-handed it with his catching glove and left a rare rebound. Eller and Columbus defenseman Zach Werenski went for it, the latter whacking it away, only to have it carom off Eller’s shin pad, then off Werenski’s left knee and into the net.
“I thought Devo was probably going to kick it out to me or Conno,” recounts Eller. “And once he kicked it out to Conno, I was just trying to get there for a weak side rebound.”
They don’t ask how, they ask how many. And for the first time in the series, the Caps came away with one more than Columbus.
“It’s just a game,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We were fortunate the puck went in for us; we got a bounce. We made a good play – I think [the Jackets] got caught in a little bit of a line change right there that we were able to execute on. When you head to the net and when you put pucks there, good things can happen.”
Eller’s first playoff goal as a Capital came two years and two days after his most recent playoff goal, and it was about as important a tally as he could have imagined. Was it the biggest one of his career to date?
“I’ll tell you when the season’s over,” he says. “But it’s up there.”