- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Thursday marks the two-year anniversary of arguably the most important goal the Washington Capitals have ever scored.

Fans know the one. They know where they were when they watched Alex Ovechkin grab a loose puck in his own zone and find Evgeny Kuznetsov up the ice for the goal. The play delivered the Capitals their long-awaited, second-round playoff series victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on their way to finally winning the Stanley Cup.

Kuznetsov had as strong a postseason as Ovechkin in 2018 and led all players with 32 points, although Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy for postseason MVP. Thinking back on that run and considering the Capitals‘ otherwise spotty record in the Stanley Cup Playoffs begs the question: Who are the best playoff performers in franchise history?

We miss hockey quite a lot right now, so we decided to rank the top 10. For criteria, we considered a mixture of overall production, longevity with the team and clutch moments, with a little recency bias toward players who contributed to the Capitals‘ only Stanley Cup.

10. John Carlson

One of the Capitals‘ finest all-around players was on track to getting his due this year as the favorite for the Norris Trophy before the season was suspended. Since coming onto the scene in 2010, Carlson not only has piled up 60 postseason points — the fourth-most in franchise history and the most by a defenseman — but also has blocked an incredible 235 shots in the playoffs, by far the most in Capitals history and a gritty testament to his ability.

9. Joel Ward

Ward, who made his NHL retirement official last week after not playing since 2018, had a short but sweet run in Washington. Before the Capitals won their first Cup, Ward’s Game 7 overtime game-winning goal for the Capitals to oust Boston in the first round in 2012 was one of the biggest goals in team history. His career playoff rates of 0.27 goals and 0.63 points per game vastly outstrip his regular-season numbers.

8. Olie Kolzig

Kolzig could have been a Stanley Cup champion in 1998, when the Capitals eventually ran into a dynastic Red Wings team in the Final and lost. But his terrific .941 save percentage over 21 games that postseason is worth honoring. He ended his career with 20 wins and six shutouts in the postseason, both of which were franchise highs until Braden Holtby surpassed them.

7. Devante Smith-Pelly

It’s hard to put him higher on this list because 2018 was a sort of one-and-done run for DSP, but the fourth-line winger became a Stanley Cup folk hero for Capitals fans. Despite playing limited minutes, Smith-Pelly scored seven postseason goals (tying his regular-season output), including two game-winners and the game-tying tally in Game 5 of the Final. He now plays for HC Kunlun Red Star, a Beijing-based KHL team.

6. Dale Hunter

He never got the hardware to show for it, but the longtime Washington center always showed up in the playoffs. Hunter scored 72 postseason points in a Capitals sweater, third in franchise history to only Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. And if you want to talk about “clutch,” Hunter’s breakaway overtime game-winner in Game 7 of the 1988 Patrick Division Semifinals — referred to since as simply “The Goal” — pushed Washington past Philadelphia and into the next round.

5. Evgeny Kuznetsov

Kuznetsov tore through the 2018 playoffs and finished with a league-best 32 points in 24 games. His overtime goal to eliminate Pittsburgh showed off both his speed to avoid two trailing defenders and his slick puck movement to beat goalie Matt Murray. He carried his personal playoff momentum into the following regular season before finally hitting some speed bumps. Still, 57 points in just five postseasons is worth our recognition.

4. Braden Holtby

“The Save.” That should be self-explanatory. But remember, too, where Holtby started the 2018 playoffs: firmly on the bench. Barry Trotz made the difficult decision to play the hotter hand, Philipp Grubauer, to start the first round after Holtby had hit a slump. The Capitals fell behind 2-0 in the series and Holtby took over the rest of the way. His career goals against average in the postseason is just 2.09, lowest among active players with 20 playoff games.

3. Lars Eller

Those who overlook Eller as merely Washington’s third-line center do so at their own peril. Eller’s performance in 2018 was crucial, especially when filling in for Backstrom after he broke his index finger. That’s one factor here, but the other should be obvious: “The Tiger” scored the go-ahead goal in Game 5 by punching in the rebound of Brett Connolly’s initial shot. In essence, it was the series-winning goal for Washington. Nothing in hockey is more clutch than that.

2. Nicklas Backstrom

Like Dale Hunter, Backstrom has scored four overtime goals in postseason play. (For context, Ovechkin has yet to accomplish that thrilling feat for the first time.) Unlike Hunter, who scored three of his for the Quebec Nordiques, Backstrom is a Washington lifer. Add in a franchise-best 70 playoff assists, and Backstrom is exactly the kind of center you want on your side in April, May and June.

1. Alex Ovechkin

It’s difficult to curate any positive list of Capitals players that doesn’t feature No. 8 at No. 1. The main knock on Ovechkin’s resume was that he couldn’t win the big one, but no longer. Among active players with at least 50 postseason points, his 0.98 points-per-game average in the playoffs is third highest. He received the 2018 Conn Smythe Trophy for his playoff-best 15 goals and 12 assists.

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