Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals scores past Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins late in the third period of Game Three of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on May 1, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
Game 3 of the Washington Capitals‘ second-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series with the Pittsburgh Penguins was decided on one clutch play by two old linemates, Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin’s game-winning goal delivered the Capitals a 4-3 win Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena in a game marked by growing animosity between the two rivals.
With 67 seconds left in regulation, Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin drew a 2-on-1 breakaway and Kris Letang fell to the ice defending Backstrom. Ovechkin’s first attempt hit the post, but on the rebound, he swatted the puck in from mid-air.
“Usually he’s flying there,” Backstrom said. “It’s 2-on-1 on breakaway. I knew it was him. He did great job sticking with it too. I think he hit the post first, then knocked it in. Huge win. We’ll take it.”
“I hit the post and it’s a good thing I didn’t raise my arms up. I finished up the play and got lucky,” Ovechkin said.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz “had a good feeling” the duo would score as he watched the play develop.
“They’ve scored a lot of goals together. They’re pretty dynamic over a number of years,” Trotz said. “Backy got the puck, you know he’s going to deliver it. World-class goal, obviously.”
Backstrom was on the ice for the play because top-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov switched out. As a result, he had slightly fresher legs than the rest of the players from both teams, who were gassed by that point.
“He changed earlier, I think, so I was only on for 20 seconds and I saw that they had been on for a little bit,” Kuznetsov said. “Probably the first time in my career that I looked fast.”
It was Backstrom’s third assist and Ovechkin’s second goal of the night.
Years from now, hockey fans might be less likely to remember the final score than Tom Wilson’s crushing hits and the fights that followed, but Game 3 was a back-and-forth affair only decided in the final minutes. Altogether, it added a new chapter to the most heated NHL rivalry of the decade.
Evgeni Malkin returned to action for Pittsburgh after missing three games with an injury, but he was in the penalty box when Washington opened scoring in the second period. Backstrom grabbed a rebound and set John Carlson up for a high-slot one-timer. Pittsburgh answered in just four minutes when Jake Guentzel deflected a shot below Braden Holtby’s glove and in.
Moments later, the Capitals allowed a power-play goal for the first time since April 15. Malkin attacked the crease with a short shot off Holtby’s stick and Patric Hornqvist poked the puck in.
Chandler Stephenson scored an equalizer, but Sidney Crosby broke the tie before the end of the period on a bang-bang play set up by Guentzel.
The extracurriculars sparked by Wilson’s hit stayed contained within the high-scoring second period. In the third, Matt Niskanen tied the game 3-3 on a blue-line shot that snuck beneath Murray’s glove and careened off his skate and behind him. In the waning minutes, the Capitals overcame Pittsburgh’s zone time and pulled off the game-winner.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said the winning goal was an example of a problem his team was trying to reduce: giving up odd-man rushes.
“We have extended zone time with that shift. We just gotta be smarter with the puck at that time of the game and in that end of the rink, and make sure that we give our forwards another opportunity to make a play at the net,” Sullivan said.
Holtby made 19 saves in the win.
“It was a game we had to work right to the end for,” Holtby said. “I thought we played really well in a lot of areas. They were forcing us to be real patient and wait for our chances and it was a real tough game for both teams. We accomplished what we wanted to and now we enjoy it for a couple minutes, refocus and focus on Game 4.”