WASHINGTON (AP) — Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin came out firing, the Carolina Hurricanes surged and the Washington Capitals showed why they’re the defending Stanley Cup champions when it mattered most.
Backstrom and Ovechkin combined to score three goals on the first eight shots before 19-year-old rookie Andrei Svechnikov led a furious third-period comeback. But Backstrom blocked a couple of shots in the final minutes, Braden Holtby made 27 saves and Washington held on to beat Carolina 4-2 on Thursday night in Game 1 of their first-round series.
“We didn’t panic,” Backstrom said after his third career two-goal game in the playoffs. “We stuck with it.”
One night after watching the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning blow a three-goal lead and lose 4-3 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Capitals went up 3-0 at 18:05 of the first period and had the sellout crowd decked out in red fired up for the first playoff game in Washington since the franchise won its first title in June. The Hurricanes took it to the Capitals, outshooting them 29-18 and got two goals in 2:19 from Svechnikov early in the third period to cut the deficit to one.
The Capitals, who led Columbus 2-0 in each of the first two games of last year’s playoffs before losing 4-3 and 5-4, had those experiences and the Lightning’s loss on Wednesday fresh in their minds.
“We knew it’s not over, even 15-nothing,” Ovechkin said. “You can see what happened last night in a different game. It’s the playoffs and you never know what’s going to happen.”
Another three-goal comeback almost happened in this one. Well after the “Back-to-back!” chants faded into nervous silence, Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek rebounded from allowing a soft opening goal to Backstrom by stopping Nic Dowd and Carl Hagelin on breakaways and turned aside Brett Connolly and Lars Eller on rapid-fire chances early in the third before Svechnikov got the Hurricanes on the board. Mrazek finished with 14 saves.
Svechnikov became the youngest player to score two-plus goals in a playoff game since Dainius Zubrus in 1997, but the Hurricanes failed to score on two late power plays and Eller sealed it with an empty-net goal with 36.6 seconds left. Despite the loss, the young Hurricanes go into Game 2 Saturday knowing they can go toe-to-toe with the playoff-seasoned Capitals.
“We’re here. We can play with them,” defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. “One of the biggest positives is that we’ve got a group in here that can play. Obviously they’re the defending champs, they’re a good team and they won last year for a reason and they know how to do it on that side. But I thought we stuck with them.”
Carolina, which had 10 players making their playoff debuts after ending the NHL’s longest postseason drought, didn’t go away. In the Hurricanes’ first playoff game since 2009, they showed a lot of the fight that allowed them to climb the standings and get in after some early-season scoring struggles.
“They’re aggressive all over the ice and didn’t give us a lot of time out there, but I think as a team we can play a little bit better,” Backstrom said. “We got lucky there.”
It’s not just luck. After allowing two goals to Svechnikov he believes he should have stopped, Holtby was there to backstop the penalty kill after a hooking call on Jakub Vrana and a high-sticking call on T.J. Oshie threatened to push the game into overtime.
Backstrom — who beat Mrazek on a harmless-looking shot to open the scoring and tapped the puck in on a backdoor play on the power play — was arguably at his most important when he got his body in front of a couple of shots in the third to keep Washington ahead.
“It’s one of the main things that won the Stanley Cup for us,” Holtby said. “The guys didn’t hesitate to get right back into doing those things. It’s great to see.”
NOTES: Capitals D John Carlson tied an NHL playoff record with three assists in one period. … With his 62nd career playoff goal, Ovechkin tied Bobby Hull for 27th on the all-time list. … Backstrom picked up his 100th career playoff point. … Carolina All-Star C Sebastian Aho was held without a goal for a 15th consecutive game. … D Calvin de Haan missed his fourth in a row with an upper-body injury. Coach Rod Brind’Amour said de Haan skated, but had no timetable for his return. … The Capitals signed C Nic Dowd to a $2.25 million, three-year extension. … The Capitals recalled top prospect Ilya Samsonov to be their third goaltender for at least the first two games of the series.
The Capitals host Game 2 Saturday afternoon looking to take a 2-0 lead in a series for just the third time in the past five playoffs.
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