WASHINGTON, D.C. — To summarize how the Washington Capitals’ penalty kill survived 67 seconds with two skaters shelved for cross-checking, to explain why Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals pivoted late in the first period, defenseman Matt Niskanen thought for a moment and arrived at two words.
“Commitment,” he said, and then, “Holts.”
The Capitals’ 4–1 win hinged on plenty of other moments than the snuffed 5-on-3, which left Verizon Center thundering and the Flyers wondering how no pucks found the net. Power-play goals from John Carlson, whipped from the point, and Alex Ovechkin, boomed from his usual spot in the left face-off circle, certainly helped. So did Steve Mason’s gaffe that let Jason Chimera’s 101-foot dump-in trickle between his legs.
In hindsight, though, nothing mattered more than when Chimera and Carlson jabbed their way into the penalty box less than one minute apart, gifting Philadelphia the chance to tie before the first intermission. Three missed shots, one blocked puck and three on-goal attempts later, the Capitals returned to even strength no worse for wear.
Praise commitment, sure, but mostly thank goaltender Braden Holtby.
“We got some good looks, but at the end of the day, 5-on-3, especially at this time of the year, you’ve got to score a goal there,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. “Their goaltender was outstanding in that stretch, as he was throughout the hockey game. But at the end of the day, that’s one spot in the hockey game where we could’ve turned the momentum.”
Heading into Monday night’s Game 3 at Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia’s first home date after the death of longtime owner Ed Snider, the Flyers have cracked Holtby just once on 61 shots, a whopping 42 of which came on Saturday night, including 19 in the first period alone. They pestered him on the doorstep, sending big bodies like forward Wayne Simmonds to whack at rebounds. They hammered pucks from what Niskanen called “crazy angles.” They tried their best to, as forward Brayden Schenn put it Friday, “make life miserable for Holtby,” who entered as the active leader in postseason save percentage and goals against average.
Except for Jakub Voracek’s second-period goal, which slid underneath Holtby’s pad after the Capitals’ back-checking coverage broke down, nothing worked.
“[Holtby] was fantastic,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “We knew they were going to have a real big push. We expected it. They came hard. I thought we were handling it O.K. We had a little bit of an exchange that we sort of mishandled and took a penalty and it started ramping up from there. They were going to the net hard. We knew that was going to happen. We talked about it and we did. They were throwing pucks from everywhere, just trying to create chaos in front of the net.”
With three power-play goals in two games, meanwhile, the Capitals have now matched their entire output from last year’s postseason, when their vaunted unit went just 3 for 29. Two of those goals have come courtesy of Carlson at the point, firing into heavy traffic while the Flyers shaded over toward Ovechkin’s side. According to Trotz, the team’s struggles last spring sparked a concentrated effort at tweaking its power-play setup, in games as well as between them, to counter whatever opposing penalty killers throw its way.
“In the playoffs, it’s a cat-and-mouse game,” Carlson said. “It’s constantly changing: on our end, on their end. You never know what you’re going to get. You might think they’re going to change and they don’t. You never know until you get out there. We did a good job making adjustments on the fly.”
The same applied on the other end during Philadelphia’s 5-on-3, and later 41 seconds of 4-on-3 when forward T.J. Oshie took a hooking penalty midway through the middle period, not long after Voracek lugged the Flyers back within one goal. Holtby faced three shots on goal within 16 seconds then, turning away Simmonds’s backhander and wristers from Claude Giroux and Schenn. With that, the Capitals’ shorthanded unit remained a perfect 7 for 7 in the series.
“I thought our power play was pretty good tonight,” Hakstol said. “But their goaltender was a little bit better, so I guess we’ve got to be a little bit better.”