Of all the times for center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s goal drought to end, seconds before the final minute of regulation, when the Washington Capitals were desperate and trailing by a goal, was a pretty good one. He had gone 17 games without a goal, and on Friday, his general manager subtly called out his young superstar center for not always playing to his potential.
“He could be one of the best players in the league if he chose to be,” Brian MacLellan said.
MacLellan added that Kuznetsov’s game seems to ramp up when the moment does, so it was fitting that after center Nicklas Backstrom won an offensive-zone draw that Kuznetsov rose to the occasion, scoring when Washington had its goaltender on the bench for an extra attacker.
Forcing overtime ensured the Capitals at least one standings point, but the Columbus Blue Jackets got the second one after Artemi Panarin scored on a power play for a 2-1 win.
This game might be remembered as much for who had to leave the ice as anything that happened on it. Captain Alex Ovechkin missed the last eight minutes of the first period being evaluated for an undisclosed injury in the locker room, then goaltender Braden Holtby was clipped in the eye by a high stick, forced to leave the game.
While Ovechkin eventually returned, Holtby did not. Backup Pheonix Copley replaced him in net, and Holtby’s status going forward is unclear. Copley made 10 saves, beat on the only shot the Blue Jackets had in overtime.
After Washington had a 4-0 shutout against Columbus in the teams’ last meeting a month ago, the Blue Jackets got on the board just a minute into the game, when winger Cam Atkinson beat Holtby on a breakaway. That goal stood as the lone one for the majority of a dull, low-intensity game that had an exciting finish.
The Capitals seemed unable to get into a flow with so many stoppages, and every time the Capitals seemed to be heating up on the ice, they’d lose a notable member of the team. Ovechkin skated his last shift of the first period with 8:16 left in it, in the locker room for evaluation. Ovechkin has been impressively durable throughout his career, never missing more than 10 games in a season, so the sight of a Washington power play without him on it at the end of the first period was jarring.
The league-leader with 32 goals, Ovechkin returned for the second period, apparently no worse for wear after the injury scare. He’s played in 208 straight games including Saturday’s.
Then 8:43 into the second period, Atkinson inadvertently wedged the blade of his stick into Holtby’s mask, causing the latter to fling his mask off in apparent distress. With his left eye impaired, Holtby walked down the tunnel to the locker room as Copley took his place in net for the rest of the game.
Meanwhile, Columbus’s Joonas Korpisalo was awarded this start after some drama in the Blue Jackets’ locker room this week. Top Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was benched by the team last game for an undisclosed incident, and Coach John Tortorella said Korpisalo got the start Saturday because he had played well and deserved it. He had a had turned away all 20 of the Capitals’ shots through two periods, and in the third frame, and he had racked up 31 saves before Kuznetsov tied the game.
In a wide-ranging interview with reporters on Friday afternoon, MacLellan said he has seen more signs of the cliched “Stanley Cup hangover” at this juncture of the season than he did at the start of it. A sleepy first 40 minutes on Saturday was a good example of that.
“I think we’ve had a little bit more of a lull lately, but it’s not as bad as you would’ve thought it would be,” MacLellan said.
The good news for the Capitals is that they’ve built up a small cushion in the Metropolitan Division, still in first place after Saturday’s result, but the picture has become even more cluttered. The top three teams in Washington, Pittsburgh and Columbus entered Saturday’s slate of games separated by just five points. More important for the Capitals is if their lineup got out of the game healthy.