- The Washington Times - Monday, April 27, 2015

For days, the Washington Capitals tried to ward off any memories of their previous failures in the final game of a playoff series, chalking them all up to substandard performances by flawed teams with players at different points in their career.

History was history, they maintained, and it had no bearing on the current squad. On Monday, they showed it’s irrelevant.

Perennial postseason hero Joel Ward and rookie center Evgeny Kuznetsov each scored goals as the Capitals advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals, defeating the New York Islanders, 2-1, in the decisive Game 7 of the teams’ first-round playoff series at Verizon Center.

Braden Holtby had a mere 10 saves for the Capitals, who will face the New York Rangers, the Presidents’ Trophy winners, for the fifth time in their last six playoff appearances in a series that will likely begin on Thursday.

“I think for sure, we wanted to come out at home strong,” said defenseman John Carlson. “I think we had a good start, and then from there, we just took care of the puck. We just did the right things breaking out, and that’s why our execution was way better than in the games that we failed.”

The victory snapped an ignominious streak for Washington, which fought throughout the season to secure home-ice advantage through at least the first round of the playoffs. What that meant, though, was that as soon as Saturday’s game ended — a 3-1 loss at Nassau Coliseum — those tortured memories of postseason failures came flooding back.

The Capitals had lost the decisive game on four of their previous five occasions, with the lone victory — a triumph over the Rangers in 2009 — immediately followed by a series-ending loss. Their last playoff appearance, also against the Rangers, ended in 2013 with a humiliating 5-0 defeat.

“I don’t think it’d be right if we didn’t play them in the playoffs,” Holtby said. “If you watched them in the regular season, you’d expect to have to go through them at some point to get to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s going to be a great series. We’re excited for the challenge.”

The Capitals knew that if they were to have success, they’d have to neutralize the Islanders from the start — and they did, holding them to a meager three shots on goal in the first period and avoiding the crushing hits that inflated their confidence.

After spending much of the first two periods camped out in the Islanders‘ zone, Washington finally broke through at 18:35 of the second, with Ward, the playoff hero in the Capitals‘ first-round series against Boston three years prior, putting his team on the board.

The carom of a shot by defenseman Brooks Orpik was stopped by Halak, but Ward tracked it down in the crease and jammed it between the goaltender’s legs.
The advantage didn’t last long for the Capitals, with the Islanders tying the score at 3:13 of the third period on Holtby’s gaffe. Nielsen let go of a wrister from the slot, his attempt softened by a whack of his stick by Jason Chimera, but the puck glanced off the top of Holtby’s left pad, above the knee, and ricocheted off the inside of his right knee before tricking between his feet and over the goal line.

The Capitals, though, remained composed, and leave it to Kuznetsov, their budding young superstar, to put them back on top. At 12:42 of the third period, Kuznetsov pulled the puck out of the left corner and skated across the ice, drifting out of reach of the Islanders‘ John Tavares and Brock Nelson and beating diving defenseman Johnny Boychuk and Halak for his third goal of the series.

“Just tried to spin a little bit. I see the room, go to the net and wait,” Kuznetsov said. “Jaro is down, and I just put puck in the net.”

Washington had one last task: To kill off an Islanders power play when John Carlson went to the box for roughing at 17:04.

They did, finishing the series at a perfect 14-for-14, and after the last 26 seconds, they could stop worrying about the past and start thinking about the future.

“We’ve got a great team in here that stood up and played a great game, so nothing more you can ask from those guys,” Carlson said.

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