Having put themselves in a position to take the series back to Washington all even and with their home-ice advantage restored, the Capitals weren’t going to let the opportunity slip through their fingers.
For the first time in four games of this first-round playoff series between the Caps and the Columbus Blue Jackets, overtime was not required. And for the first time in four games in this series, there were no lead changes. The Caps scored first and never trailed en route to a series-tying 4-1 victory over the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Thursday night. The series returns to D.C. with each team having two wins in the best-of-seven set.
The Caps’ 3-2 win in double overtime in Tuesday’s Game 3 kept them from going down into an 0-3 canyon in the series, and Thursday’s win shrinks the series to a best-of-three, with the Caps owning the home-ice advantage, for whatever that is worth. Washington has lost five of its last six home playoff games, but it has won six of its last eight on the road in the postseason.
“I thought we managed the game much better,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “I thought we got a huge save in the first and one in the second at real key moments, and I thought we had a real big buy-in. I thought we were stronger, we were fresh, and we were ready to go.”
Columbus got a chance to jump out to an early lead when Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov was boxed for an offensive-zone hooking violation just 34 seconds after the game’s opening puck drop. But the Caps killed that penalty expertly, preventing the Blue Jackets from generating as much as a shot attempt.
Before the game’s first television timeout, the Caps jumped out to a 1-0 lead, the fourth time they’ve done so in as many games in this series. Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky stopped Caps defenseman John Carlson’s shot off the rush, and he also made the save on Chandler Stephenson’s bid to pot the rebound. But Kuznetsov collected the loose puck and nudged it to Tom Wilson, who just came over the boards. Wilson’s one-timer from above the right circle eluded Bobrovsky on the glove side, giving Washington a 1-0 lead at 6:16 of the first.
Less than a minute later, the Jackets went shorthanded for the first time in the game, but the Caps weren’t able to break through, failing to get a shot on net during their first man advantage opportunity.
The Caps also over-passed themselves out of an excellent scoring chance on a three-on-one rush later in the first frame, failing to even pull the trigger on such a rush for the second time in the last three games.
Wilson had a chance to make it a 2-0 game early in the second when Devante Smith-Pelly made a neat play to spring him on a breakaway. But Bobrovsky stopped the Washington winger’s backhand bid. When Lars Eller took a hooking penalty seconds later, the Jackets again had a chance to seize momentum and affect a two-goal swing. Nick Foligno hit the pipe with a shot, but that was as close as Columbus came to tying the game.
Washington doubled its lead on a power play midway through the middle period. With Artemi Panarin in the box for slashing, the Caps doubled their lead. Carlson made an excellent keep in the attack zone, enabling the Caps to keep the heat on in he attack zone. He put the puck back down low, and Alex Ovechkin had a couple of cracks from in tight. Bobrovsky stopped those, but T.J. Oshie got to the rebound of the second one, burying it for a 2-0 Caps lead at 9:19 of the second.
Early in the third, Ovechkin drew much of the drama out of the game and the barn when he slipped a shot through Bobrovsky’s five-hole for a 3-0 Washington lead at 2:49. Ovechkin’s goal was the first at five-on-five by one of Washington’s big guns in this series, and it provided the first lead of as many as three goals for either team in this series.
Ovechkin’s insurance strike loomed larger when Columbus got on the board just after the first television timeout of the third period. The Jackets won a draw in the attack zone and made it a 3-1 game at 6;22 when Boone Jenner tipped a Josh Anderson shot behind Holtby to make it 3-1.
As they did at a couple of junctures earlier in the game, the Caps prevented the Blue Jackets from gaining any momentum from that goal. Washington kept the heat on Columbus in the attack zone, forcing the Jackets to play defense in their own end and killing the clock.
Columbus coach John Tortorella pulled Bobrovsky for an extra attacker with 3:29 remaining, and just over a minute later Kuznetsov scored into the empty net to account for the 4-1 final.
After losing Game 2 in Washington, Ovechkin said the Caps would be heading back for Game 5 with the series tied, and he was right. Game 5 is on Saturday afternoon in the District.
“I jus think we did a lot of good things in the first two [games of the series],” says Carlson. “I don’t know if we deserved to lose, but we didn’t deserve to win, either. But these past two, we’ve done those little things that add up in terms of coverage and effort and paying the price when you need to. That’s why we came out of here with wins.”