- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Alex Ovechkin skated to the Washington Capitals‘ bench to celebrate a power-play goal by hugging his teammates. The scene foreshadowed a more muted celebration at game’s end, one that did not amplify the team’s ecstasy but instead highlighted its relief.

The Capitals defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets, 6-3, in Game 6 to clinch their first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series and advance to the second round. For the third straight year, the Capitals will face the Pittsburgh Penguins, two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, in the second round.

Ovechkin scored twice and Devante Smith-Pelly and Chandler Stephenson added third-period goals that put it out of reach for Columbus. Braden Holtby made 35 saves, while Nick Foligno scored twice to lead Columbus.

Washington is the first NHL team to win a playoff series after starting with consecutive overtime losses at home. The Capitals can finally put a series that featured five overtime periods across four of its games — accounting for nearly 60 full minutes of extra hockey — behind them.

“The series was pretty fun to play and pretty fun to watch I think. It was lots of hockey,” Ovechkin said. “They got lucky in the first two, in the overtimes. We got lucky in the third one. We know … lucky bounce, lucky play, it turns out a different way. We managed to do well and we get the series done.”

“It’s a tough building to come into,” Stephenson added. “We wanted to keep doing what we were doing the last three games. It feels good to move onto the next round.”

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said it was a “tremendous test” for the team to fall behind 0-2 last week.

“We’ve had to rely on our core to push us forward and they have. They’ve been excellent this year in every aspect,” Trotz said. “Probably at the beginning of the year there weren’t a lot of people who said we’d probably finish first in the Metro, and we did that. It’s just creating a consistent culture, but having good players, too.”

Washington had trouble keeping the puck out of its defensive zone in the early minutes of Game 6, but Holtby and the defensemen stymied Columbus’s chances. Twelve minutes in, Dmitry Orlov opened scoring with a strike from the blue line set up by the defense: Holtby stoned an Atkinson re-direct attempt that looked destined to go in, and the Capitals cleared it about 30 seconds later.

The Blue Jackets fired back in the second period by killing a Washington 5-on-3 opportunity and arranging a Foligno wrist shot. But the Capitals regained the lead four minutes later. Sergei Bobrovsky stopped a Brooks Orpik shot, but Ovechkin was there to bury the easy rebound.

The captain kept it up on a power play late in the second by scoring from his office at the left circle. It ensured the Capitals tallied a power-play goal in all six games of the series. Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson provided the textbook O-zone setup; it was Carlson’s eighth assist of the postseason, which leads the NHL.

Ovechkin’s two goals took a close game and ultimately put it in the Capitals‘ control for the rest of the night, but he did not take much credit afterward.

“Doesn’t matter who scores,” Ovechkin said. “It matters how we manage the game after that.”

Early in the third, Christian Djoos fell down in front of a loose puck behind Washington’s net. Matt Calvert grabbed it and set up Pierre-Luc Dubois for a one-timer, the Columbus top line’s first goal since Game 3.

The Capitals delivered another quick response, one to pull the plug on the series. Smith-Pelly slung a shot into the top-right corner on a one-on-one breakaway, and a minute later, Jay Beagle sent a saucer pass to Stephenson for another breakaway goal, Stephenson’s first playoff score. The latter came while the Capitals were shorthanded, deflating the Columbus crowd for good.

Foligno scored his second goal with plenty of time left, but the two-goal cushion was safe enough for Washington. Lars Eller scored on an empty net in the final seconds.

Though the Blue Jackets’ chances shrank as the third period went on, Holtby pointed out how tough they continued to play.

“They put on a really good period of hockey, probably one of the hardest periods of hockey I played,” Holtby said. “That’s a credit to them, ‘cause they were coming, they were working like they didn’t want to end their season. They pushed us to the limit and I applaud them for that.”

The Capitals‘ special teams stayed special. In addition to scoring a power-play goal for the sixth straight game, the penalty kill extended its streak to 17 straight kills.

Under coach John Tortorella, the Blue Jackets have made the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history, but their season ended on a sour note. Columbus is now 2-8 all-time in home playoff games.

Tortorella said the Jackets “chased” the Capitals, playing from behind for much of the series, but added the “better team won in this series.”

“They made bigger plays at key times. Our power play started well, faded a little bit. Their power play got better which was a huge part going into tonight’s game, that was kind of the edge of where the series was,” Tortorella said. “We have some things to keep on working at with this team.”

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