WASHINGTON – For the fourth time in the Washington Capitals' past four Stanley Cup Playoff appearances, they were playing in a Game 7. All they had to do was win.
The Capitals defeated the New York Islanders 2-1 at Verizon Center to advance to the Eastern Conference Second Round and will play a familiar foe, the New York Rangers. Game 1 will be Thursday at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports).
The previous two times Washington had to play seven games in a playoff series, they came home empty-handed. Washington is 4-9 in Game 7s since 1987.
The Capitals defeated the defending-champion Boston Bruins in seven games in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, but then lost in seven to the Rangers in the second round.
The Rangers eliminated the Capitals again in seven games in the first round in 2013.
Goaltender Braden Holtby has been in net for the Capitals in 27 of the 28 games played in those four seven-game series -- he sat out Game 2 against the Islanders last week when he became ill.
"It was a different game in the past, that’s for sure," Holtby said. "It’s not exactly what I was expecting, but I think the experience paid off for a lot of our guys that realized what it takes in a Game 7. Realistically the effort we put forward, we might not even had to put 60 [minutes], but we just couldn’t get a couple bounces to go our way and we just kept pushing."
After a sloppy 3-1 loss in Game 6, Washington was determined to bounce back. The Capitals won every game following a loss in the series against the Islanders.
"We wanted to come out at home strong," Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. "I think we had a good start, and I think from there we just took care of the puck. We did the right things breaking out, and that’s why our execution was way better than in the games we failed. I think that’s a testament to everyone that stepped their game up, and that’s why we looked so much better."
Washington forward Nicklas Backstrom points to his teammates, Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and Brooks Laich, who have all watched the same story unfold year after year. All four players have played in seven or more Game 7’s with the Capitals.
"I think the reason we lost those Game 7s was that we weren’t desperate enough," Backstrom said. "We came out hungrier tonight. We were quick. We wanted to win. I think you can tell that watching the game, too. The last few years when we lost Game 7s, we came out a little flat. But not tonight."
The Capitals were in the driver’s seat the minute the puck dropped. Every player said this time is different. They were right.
It took 40 minutes for Washington to break through Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak and Joel Ward played the part he’d rehearsed many times before: the Game 7 hero.
Center - WSH
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 4
SOG: 22 | +/-: 0
A small hiccup came when Frans Nielsen
’s shot trickled through Holtby’s pads and over the goal line but that is where Washington’s poise came into play. No one blinked.
"It was a little stunning when they scored," Ward said. "We regrouped, no one panicked and [Evgeny Kuznetsov] made an unbelievable play."
Kuznetsov roofed an improbable sharp-angle shot past Halak to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead. The minutes ticked down.
Carlson was sent off for roughing Islanders forward Casey Cizikas with less than three minutes remaining, the only penalty of the game. Washington killed it off, as they had done for all 15 Islanders power plays through seven games.
"We stayed in the game plan," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said, "And we talked about no matter what happens in the series because we were so evenly matched, leave our best game out there, and if it wasn’t good enough tonight, we could live with that. But if it was good enough, then we’ll get a chance to move on. I thought that was our best game [of the series], and we let it all out there, and full credit to the whole group."
Washington will take this Game 7, for the first time in a long time, as one they can be proud of.
"It was a phenomenal game," Holtby said. "That’s the best I’ve seen us play – everybody. It was an effort that probably should have been more than 2-1, the way we played. But start to finish, that’s a game we’ve been trying to groom all year. Now this should do us a lot with our confidence that we can play a full 60."