Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals weren’t ready for their season to end.
The forward scored two goals, including the winner 3:40 into the third period, and the Capitals avoided elimination with a 3-2 victory against the New York Islanders in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Tuesday.
It still needs to win the next three games in order to advance, but Washington rallied after trailing 2-0 in the first period to force a Game 5 in Toronto, the hub city for the East, on Thursday.
“If we’re going to play like that, we have a pretty good chance to come back,” Ovechkin, the Capitals captain, said. “But we’re going to take a game at a time, and we get one. It’s only one and we move on to the next one.”
Washington is seeking to become the fifth team to come back from trailing 3-0 and win a best-of-7 Stanley Cup Playoff series (1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1975 Islanders, 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, 2014 Los Angeles Kings).
If the Capitals are going to pull off this comeback, they’ll need their best players at their best, which is exactly what happened in Game 4. Ovechkin led the way, celebrating his son Sergei’s second birthday with two goals to move ahead of Gordie Howe and Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby into 18th on the NHL all-time list with 69 NHL playoff goals.
Ovechkin also had three hits and blocked two shots, including one on defenseman Scott Mayfield with Washington clinging to a one-goal lead with 2:34 remaining in the third period.
“I would say that, obviously, the goals we don’t need to discuss. No one can score goals like this player,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “It was the other stuff that went on. It was the stuff that was said in the locker room. It was the stuff that was said to the teammates. It was the stuff that was said on the bench. It was physicality, it was belief.
“It was the emotion that he showed after he scored the goal: ‘Get in line, because we are going.'”
During a postgame interview on NBC Sports Washington, forward T.J. Oshie said it was also Ovechkin’s idea for some players to trim their playoff beards to goatees or cut their hair to change their luck.
Center Evgeny Kuznetsov did both, shaving his head completely and his face to a goatee. He started the rally with his 4-on-4 goal on a solo rush 3:35 into the second period.
Kuznetsov powered his way to net from the right-wing boards and scored five-hole on Semyon Varlamov when Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock poked the puck from his stick. It was Kuznetsov’s third goal of the playoffs.
“I think we just stopped thinking about those Corsi, whatever that stats, and just tried to play fun hockey,” Kuznetsov said. “We tried to hold onto the puck. That’s how we always play, and I think, maybe I don’t understand hockey, but that’s how we’re supposed to play.
“It’s not about 1,000 shots; it’s about possession. It’s about wearing them down and it’s about doing joy and having fun and that’s how we enjoy the game.”
Ovechkin tied it with a vintage one-timer from the left circle inside the far post for a power-play goal at 5:29. The Capitals generated some sustained pressure for the first time in the series over the remainder of the second period, but they could not break through to take the lead until Ovechkin scored on a 2-on-1 rush 3:40 into the third period.
With linemate Tom Wilson on his left, Ovechkin skated in on the right wing and let go a wrist shot from the circle that beat Varlamov under his right arm for his fourth goal of the series.
“He’s always ready to make an impact,” defenseman John Carlson said of Ovechkin. “We know just how dangerous he is and just how much he can [turn] the game on its head on his own.”
The Capitals closed out the game from there, limiting the Islanders to six shots on goal in the third period. They got the win they needed to stay alive and build some belief.
Washington goalie Braden Holtby made 24 saves.
“Obviously any comeback is exciting, but I think it’s more the way we played the second and third periods,” Holtby said. “That’s the key to our ability to come back and win this series. If we play every period like that, it’s going to be really, really hard to beat us.”