Shortly after scoring his team’s first goal in Tuesday’s 4-2 win over the top-seeded Florida Panthers, Tom Wilson returned to the locker room with a lower-body injury. The Capitals winger did not play again that night.
But the Capitals prevailed anyway, in part because they found ways to replicate the kind of hard-nosed hockey that Wilson made a career out of.
There was Alex Ovechkin, for example, who got the puck out on a Florida possession to set up Evgeny Kuznetsov’s tying goal in the third period. There was Anthony Mantha, throwing his body for a record 10 hits. And there was TJ Oshie, dashing across the ice to be in the perfect position to redirect Nicklas Backstrom’s pass for the game-winning goal of the night.
The Capitals not only upset the best team in the NHL — at least in terms of records — on Tuesday, but the win provided a template for how they can win the rest of the series.
To control the strongest offense in the league, the Capitals spent much of the game in their offensive zone – outscoring the Panthers 38-32 in shots on goal and 61-59 in shot attempts. Washington played tough, a physical defense that largely kept Florida out in transition. And the Capitals avoided reckless turnovers, not allowing the Panthers to grab odds.
Washington had to overcome a second-period deficit, although his performance showed the team was more than capable of doing so.
“We believe (in) ourselves,” Kuznetsov said. “This game could bring us a lot of positives. … We have a group of veteran guys. We have excellent coaches. They will make adjustments and say the right words. We know it’s going to be a long streak and it’s going to be tough every game.
It will be more difficult, of course, if Wilson is not available. Laviolette said Wednesday the 28-year-old would be a game-time decision for Thursday’s Game 2. After initially sustaining the injury, Wilson attempted to return to the ice to skate during a timeout, but was barely able to do so.
But the Capitals weren’t fazed by the Panthers, with players suggesting before the series that there was a big difference between regular-season and playoff hockey. Washington, after all, is arguably the most experienced group, as its core have enjoyed tangible playoff success. The four Washington players who scored on Tuesday — Wilson, Kuznetsov, Oshie and Lars Eller — won the Stanley Cup with the team in 2018, for example.
Washington, however, found contributions from those outside of that Stanley Cup race. Starting goaltender Vitek Vanecek was steady, stopping 30 of 32 shots with a .938 save percentage. Mantha, taking extra shifts for an injured Wilson, finished with nearly 20 minutes of ice time.
Mantha, in particular, has missed more than half of the season with a shoulder injury. But when he returned from surgery in March, the 27-year-old ended the year strong with seven goals and 10 assists in the final two months of the season (27 games). He provided a different – and necessary – element against the Panthers.
Mantha smiled when asked about the achievements. He corrected a reporter who suggested it was his best since joining the Capitals. In fact, he smiles, 10 hits was his most in a game ever.
“This is playoff hockey,” Mantha said. “That’s how I wanted to play (Tuesday) and hopefully that’s how I continue to play the whole series.”
Mantha said he hoped the physics would have a cumulative effect, hoping the Panthers would eventually burn out as the series went on. Even after Game 1, the Capitals look set for a long streak. The Panthers have a wide range of talented scorers and their offense has beaten many teams.
Mantha warned the Capitals must be ready for any push in Florida. Just a year ago, the Capitals also took a 1-0 lead against the Boston Bruins – only to be swept the remainder of the series and knocked out of the first round in five games.
But the Capitals stayed disciplined against the Panthers in Game 1. And as a result, they were the first team to beat the Panthers in regulation as they trailed after two periods this season. Prior to that, the Panthers were 39-0-1 when leading after two periods in the regular season.
“We were very together as a group,” center Nic Dowd said. “The bench was very quiet. We stuck to our game plan until the end and it worked.