It couldn’t have been any closer.
The Washington Capitals beat the New York Islanders by the slimmest of margins in the maximum number of games in their first-round playoff series Monday, winning Game 7, 2-1. The Capitals allowed just seven shots on goal through two periods before Evgeny Kuznetsov netted the game-winner with less than eight minutes remaining.
“I think the Capitals wore the Islanders down,” Washington’s 106.7 “The Fan” host Grant Paulsen said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “They’re a bigger, more physical team. They were built that way really for the first time in several years. They’ve had plenty of playoff runs, as you know. They’ve been to the postseason now seven of the last eight seasons with very little success. At no point have they won two series to get even halfway to a Stanley Cup, to get to a conference final. Their hope is that this year they can do that.”
With a revamped defense, maybe they can. The Capitals allowed just one goal in three of the last four games of the series and will advance to the second round to play the Rangers, who beat the Penguins, 4-1.
“(The Capitals) invested money and really anchored their personnel on defense,” Paulsen said. “They went out this offseason (and) spent a bunch of coin on Matt Niskanen, who came over from the Pittsburgh Penguins, and his former teammate, Brooks Orpik.”
Throw in Tim Gleason – another big, physical body – and you’ve got quite a formidable defense.
“They were bigger on the back end,” Paulsen said. “Ultimately, they were able to push around a smaller, faster Islanders team that kind of resembles the old Capitals under Bruce Boudreau when Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom broke in. I think that’s what you saw tonight. The Islanders were down three defensemen in this series with some injuries. They just weren’t as strong at the back end – and because of that, the Capitals outshot them. They had more chances to score, and eventually they broke through.”
Washington out-shot New York 26-11 and got a second-period goal from Joel Ward before Kuznetsov netted the game-winner. Kuznetsov scored three goals in the series, tying Backstrom for the team lead.
“(Kuznetsov is) probably the star of the series for them,” Paulsen said. “He was the best player on the ice in a couple of games, and he had the game-winner tonight. I stopped by the team store on the way out of the stadium, and I said, ‘Hey, how many Kuznetsov jerseys did you sell?’ They were completely sold out.”
Ovechkin, meanwhile, had a solid series. He didn’t score in the final three games but finished with two goals and three assists.
“I thought he was very good,” Paulsen said. “He probably would have liked to have had more scoring chances, particularly at even strength, and he would’ve liked to have done more on the power play when they had opportunities. They were limited. Frankly, they just didn’t get many chances.”
No matter. The Capitals are just happy to advance, especially Ovechkin, “a guy who takes a lot of heat” despite ranking first and fourth among active players, respectively, in goals per playoff game and points per playoff game.
“The idea that he hasn’t been good enough in the playoffs and that the Caps can’t win the big game with him (is untrue),” Paulsen said. “You talk about winning when it counts and (how) Peyton Manning’s not good because he’s only won one Super Bowl. It’s uneducated people who haven’t advanced with the times to the metrics. But that doesn’t matter. If you’re Ovechkin, you still have to hear about it. If you’re a Capitals fan, it’s still a thing that’s going to be yelled at you in a bar when you’re talking about your team. And so he knew that if they lost, whether he had three goals and four points or he got shut down and the Caps didn’t score – it was going to be his fault.
“And the fact was, tonight he wasn’t particularly impactful or a difference-maker on the stat sheet,” Paulsen continued. “He wasn’t the guy scoring the goals. It was his line, with Joel (Ward) getting the first goal of the game, but the Caps were able to advance. They had more secondary scoring. They’re a little bit deeper as a team. Their second line tonight showed some speed – Jason Chimera along with Evgeny Kuznetsov, two guys who have been elevated up lines as this series has gone along. They’ve broken out.
“But clearly the narrative was going to be one way or the other. It was either Ovechkin’s fault or the captain won the big one. I’m sure he’ll get more credit (Tuesday), frankly, than he deserves. It was a night about a lot of other guys as much as it was about him.”