- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2019

The roars grew louder and louder still.

Playoff hockey returned to the District Thursday, 10 months after the Stanley Cup came to town for the first time. The Washington Capitals looked like the defending champions during the first period, but it wasn’t until they safely put the game to bed that the thrills of last year’s run were truly reawakened among the home crowd.

Nicklas Backstrom scored twice and John Carlson racked up three assists as the Capitals held on to beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-2 in Game 1 of their Stanley Cup Playoffs first-round series.

Alex Ovechkin also scored a power-play goal, one of three Washington goals to come in the first period. Braden Holtby made 27 saves.

“It is always important to have a good start,” Ovechkin said. “But again, series goes for four wins and we got one right now, to get this game and move forward.”

The game went from a sure Washington win to a nailbiter when Carolina rookie Andrei Svechnikov scored twice in the third period to pull his team back within range. But the Capitals held on to their lead and Lars Eller netted an empty-net insurance goal.

“We’ll be having a better game plan going into the next game,” said coach Todd Reirden, who won his first playoff game as a head coach. “They’re a good team and we can play better than we did tonight.”

The Capitals put only 18 shots on goal against Carolina’s 29. They came away feeling they can perform better at 5-on-5 and in the offensive zone.

“We’ve got to dump it a little bit better to each other, work better together,” Backstrom said. “That’s an area we can be better in, and yeah, I mean, we’ve got to stay physical. That’s what we talk about all the time.”

The physicality was evident on both sides, especially early on, and after the teams traded hits Backstrom opened scoring 10 minutes in. Picking up a Carlson pass off the boards, Backstrom made his way through the neutral zone and sniped his shot in the top-right corner.

Washington then capitalized on its first two power-play opportunities as Carolina struggled to find the best way to defend it. First, they cheated toward Ovechkin, so Evgeny Kuznetsov rifled in a pass to the crease where Backstrom tapped it in. When Ovechkin was left alone on the next chance five minutes later, he charged toward a loose puck for a wrist-shot goal.

Carolina stopped the Capitals’ power plays in the second period, as goalie Petr Mrazek plugged the gaps. In the first five minutes of the third, he turned away breakaway attempts by Nic Dowd and Carl Hagelin and wide-open shots from Brett Connolly and Lars Eller.

Svechnikov found a way to carry Eller’s missed shot the length of the ice and convert it into his first career playoff goal. He struck again two minutes later with a slapshot goal.

Washington took two minor penalties late in the game, and with T.J. Oshie in the box with some 3:30 left, the Capitals had to fend off a 4-on-6 situation with Carolina pulling Mrazek in favor of a sixth skater.

The Capitals’ close call was reminiscent of Wednesday night, when the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning saw a 3-0 first-period lead melt away in a 4-3 Game 1 loss to wild card Columbus. The Capitals entered their series proclaiming they wouldn’t take the Hurricanes for granted.

“I didn’t say, ‘Well did you all see the game last night?’” Reirden said. “But I knew it was a situation where I thought they would get some power plays in the third. We’ve had a few too many in the first two periods so I figured it would be evened up as we went along.”

“I think that’s a good lesson to learn from our standpoint, too,” Carlson said. “These things happen. We know it, and if we’re on the other side, have confidence in that as well.”

After a 4-0 regular season sweep for the Capitals, the Hurricanes still have not managed to beat Washington this year.

They’ll play Game 2 on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Capital One Arena before the series shifts to Raleigh, North Carolina.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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