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They turned to a player that had never faced the pressure of either in the playoffs.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, playing in his first postseason, scored his third goal of the playoffs on an awesome individual effort at 12:42 of the third period, giving the Capitals a lead they wouldn’t relinquish to eliminate the Islanders in seven games, 2-1.
"This is a new group," said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. "All that old stuff? Get rid of it. Let's build something. We could feel the energy [from the fans]. We weren't going to let that game go."
Kuznetsov took the puck on right wing and just flipped on the afterburners, skating through the slot with Frans Nielsen of the Islanders giving chase, out-waiting Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak and then scoring on an unstoppable shot to the top corner of the net.
Since Alex Ovechkin arrived in Washington, the Capitals had played seven Game 7s. They had won just two of them, and were 1-4 on home ice in Game 7s since 2008.
“I think the reason we lost those Game 7s was that we weren’t desperate enough," said center Nicklas Backstrom. "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.”
Coming into Game 7 on Monday night, Halak (24 saves) was 4-0 in games in which Washington could eliminate his team. He was the netminder that led the Montreal Canadiens back from a 3-1 deficit to shock Washington in 2010, winning Game 7 as a No. 8 seed at Verizon Center. He was the goalie that was 2-0 with a .963 save percentage in Game 7s in his career.
From the opening whistle, the Capitals brought the thunder, throwing the body. Controlling the puck. Playing with more confidence, and less panic, than they had in previous series finales.
"It seemed like we were worried or on our heels a bit. We didn't want to make a mistake, and I think in these games you've got to play a little bit more aggressive," said Islanders captain John Tavares, who didn't have a shot in Game 7.
The first 40 minutes were some of the most dominating hockey the Capitals have played in recent memory: a 70.6-percent team corsi-for in the first, a 69.7-percent corsi-for in the second, where the Capitals controlled the Islanders in their own zone on several shifts.
“We didn’t turn the puck over like we did in Game 6. In Game 6, we tried to make plays through the neutral zone and that’s a recipe for disaster," said defenseman Brooks Orpik.
“They were tired. You could see it on some of the guys.”
The Islanders were on the ropes. It felt like a matter of one play, one bounce for the home team to get the lead.
They had a few close calls, none closer than a wide-open net for trade deadline acquisition Curtis Glencross with just over eight minutes left in the period. He waited too long to pull the point-blank trigger, then whiffed on the shot, meekly pushing it into Halak’s pads.
The Capitals’ next point-blank chance wouldn’t miss.
They took the lead at 18:35 of the second period, as Alex Ovechkin sent the puck to Brooks Orpik at the left points. Meanwhile, Joel Ward and Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuck were doing battle in front of the crease. Ward shoved Boychuk out of the way as Orpik released the shot. Halak gave up a short rebound, Ward tucked it through his pads and into the net, and Verizon Center exploded in well-earned bedlam.
The Islanders tied the game on a bad goal surrendered by Holtby.
Tomas Hickey cut through the top of the zone, before dishing to Nielsen. He took a low wrist shot that Holtby dropped to his knees to deflect … only to have the puck trickle through to the back of the net. The Islanders celebrated. The crowd did not.
The Capitals outshot the Islanders 11-3 in the first, and 10-4 in the second.
The penalties called in the first two periods? Zero and zero. Whistles were swallowed during the game, as obstruction reigned and brutal hits went unpunished, none more brutal an Alex Ovechkin hit square in the numbers on Hickey:
Hey, it’s Game 7. They let’em play until a John Carlson roughing penalty with less than three minutes to go in the game.
But the story of the game was the Capitals vs. Halak, who played brilliantly for the Islanders, especially in the third after his team tied the game. There was a funky bounce to Jay Beagle that he flashed his right pad out to stop. There was an awful turnover by Nik Kulemin to Troy Brouwer, who fired the puck by was robbed by Halak.
But that’s just what Jaro Halak does in Game 7s. It was nearly enough.
For the Islanders, it was a hard-fought series. In the end, their Game 6 win will go down as the last Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum until their move to Brooklyn next season.
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