UNIONDALE, N.Y. — As the Washington Capitals skated off the ice, their heads held forward in solemn acceptance, a party raged at the other end of the rink.
“The Old Barn” will live to die another day.
Nikolay Kulemin scored a tie-breaking goal 10:27 into the third period, and Cal Clutterbuck scored an empty-netter with 52.6 seconds remaining, as the New York Islanders defeated the Capitals, 3-1, on Saturday afternoon, prolonging the demise of Nassau Coliseum by forcing a deciding game in the teams’ first-round playoff series.
John Tavares scored the Islanders’ first goal, and goaltender Jaroslav Halak finished with 38 saves, to force the deciding Game 7 in Washington on Monday night.
“To me, it was the desperation level of the Islanders was just a little bit higher than ours,” coach Barry Trotz said. “At the end of the day, I think, we were trying to stay in it, and now we’re both desperate. We should have the same kind of desperation on both sides, because it’s a winner-take-all situation.”
An aggressive, physical game — especially late — the outcome was slightly marred by a post-game fracas involving the two teams. Capitals defenseman John Carlson charged that it began when Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo objected to Carlson’s attempt to score in the closing seconds despite the result already in hand.
Eight players — four on each team — were assessed penalties following the skirmish, with Clutterbuck, who wasn’t on the ice when time expired, drawing a 10-minute misconduct.
“It’s just a little nastiness that goes on,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. “It’s just part of the game, you know? I expect that, obviously, and I expect that in Game 7 as well.”
Carlson scored the Capitals’ lone goal, breaking through on their third power-play opportunity of the first period when his attempt deflected off of Halak with 4.3 seconds remaining. It was only the second power-play goal in 13 attempts for Washington, which entered the series having scored on 25.3 percent of its advantages during the regular season.
Kulemin broke the stalemate in the third period when officials allowed play to continue through a scrum along the benches and Tavares skated two-on-three with the puck across center ice. His original shot was turned away by Braden Holtby, who had 35 saves, and Tavares was checked hard into the glass in the left corner by Alex Ovechkin.
The puck, meanwhile, squirted along the boards to Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy at the half-wall, and with Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen charging, Leddy flipped it to a wide-open Kulemin, who took possession just in front of the crease and wrapped his shot around Holtby on the goaltender’s right.
“I’ve never really seen a play like that that isn’t blown down,” Holtby said. “We’re playing two-on-two hockey, and their guy got out of the scrum first. You know, it’s one where I’d hope we’d keep our composure a little better and not double-coverage a situation like that. You don’t plan for that stuff, but it’s tough to swallow, and it happens.”
The Capitals softened their interest in playing in the final game at the building on Friday, one day after they took a 3-2 advantage in the series, and insisted leading that they were merely focused on winning a playoff series.
That approach was similar to the one taken all series by the Islanders, who tucked away whatever emotions the building had drawn out of them in recent weeks. Any question about playing in the final games in the arena — the team will move to Barclays Center in New York this fall — was met with a stock response on the importance of the next playoff game.
For Washington, Game 6 was pivotal: Historically, the team has lost Game 6 while holding a 3-2 series lead on six occasions, then lost the resulting Game 7 all but once. That lone success was in 2012, when the Capitals defeated the Boston Bruins in overtime; a year later, they forced Game 7 against the New York Rangers, only to be humiliated in a 5-0 defeat.
Washington held the edge in shots on goal after the first period — a rare occurrence in the series — but failed to develop quality scoring chances. A two-on-one with Nicklas Backstrom and Joel Ward at 4:09 of the first period was knocked away by Halak, and at 14:27 of the third period, Jay Beagle wristed a rebound toward the net that pinged the crossbar and dropped, with a review showing that it had not crossed the goal line.
“They had too many looks,” Trotz said. “We were too loose around a few areas of our net and some of the things that we could do better, so I thought they had some quality chances. Braden was really good, and I thought we had some quality chances. Halak was pretty good. We had two pretty good goaltenders and two desperate teams.”
Hosting Game 7 hasn’t been a particular blessing to the Capitals, who, since returning to the playoffs in 2008, have won only once in the five times they’ve hosted the deciding game.
“We’re a different team,” Holtby said. “We’re going to prepare [knowing] what we have to do to win a game. Regardless of Game 7 or not, we know what we have to do to be successful.”