The Washington Capitals and Nashville Predators clearly had some pent up frustration Wednesday from the NHL’s extended holiday break due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In the two teams’ first game since the pause that started Dec. 22, more than five scuffles broke out, with a combined 19 penalties and 68 minutes in the box.
After the two teams traded a trio of goals, it was the Capitals who came out on top with a 5-3 victory. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the game-winner with 5:36 left.
“There was a lot to be excited about coming home, coming off a layoff too,” said John Carlson, who led the Capitals with a goal and three assists. “Sometimes we need some days off and we want some days off, but especially these guys have been sitting around for a long time not being able to do anything, so I think there was some freedom for a lot of people.”
Lars Eller, Carlson and Nic Dowd all scored in the first period to give the Capitals an early 3-0 lead. Carl Hagelin later capped off the win with an empty-netter in the third period.
The Capitals, who hadn’t played since Dec. 19, are now 19-6-7 and in first place in the Metropolitan Division with 45 points. The win is the 692nd of coach Peter Laviolette’s career, passing Dick Irvin for 10th all-time. The milestone triumph came against his former team, as Laviolette won 248 games as the Predators coach from 2014 to 2019.
Carlson and the rest of his teammates didn’t waste any time getting reacclimated with the ice. Less than four minutes into the contest, Carlson assisted Eller to give the Capitals an early lead. The goal was Eller’s fourth in his last six games.
Ovechkin also earned a secondary assist on the Eller goal, giving Ovechkin 26 assists in 32 games. He ranks third in the NHL with 49 points — one behind Edmonton stars Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.
About 10 minutes later, Carlson fired a wrister into the top right corner of the net off a pass from Nicklas Backstrom to double Washington’s advantage. The helper was Backstrom’s second in as many games, as the star center returned for one contest on Dec. 15 but then went on the COVID-19 list. For Carlson, he now ranks third among NHL defensemen in points with 30 (seven goals, 23 assists).
Nic Dowd, who has been in and out of the lineup for the last two months with multiple injuries and a bout with COVID-19, then scored the Capitals’ third straight goal to start the game near the end of the first period.
“Ultimately, it was the first period that cost us the game,” said Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm. “We came out too slow.”
Aside from being just as chippy with several skirmishes, the second period was the opposite of the first. Nashville, which entered the game on a seven-game winning streak but fell to 19-11-1 with the loss, scored three goals in the first eight minutes of the period. Yakov Trenin found the back of the cage first, while Luke Kunin and Filip Forsberg later chipped in with goals 35 seconds apart to tie the game.
“I just think that we didn’t come out with the same pace,” Carlson said. “They’re a good team. They work really hard, and I think when you maybe sit back just a little bit it makes a huge difference.”
After a nearly 28-minute scoring lull, Kuznetsov found the net to put Washington up 4-3 while the Capitals were short-handed. The goal came right after a four-on-four ended, and the 29-year-old center, who was denied on a slick save by Predators goalie Juuse Saros a few minutes earlier, came from behind the net and flicked in the game-winning score.
“I think [Carlson] was kind of swinging there and he wasn’t open, so I decided to shoot,” Kuznetsov said. “I didn’t have a great shot this game, but I still had a little room there.”
NOTES: Defenseman Alex Alexeyev made his NHL debut for the Capitals, playing about 10 minutes. … Defensemen Martin Fehervary (COVID-19 list) and Nick Jensen (COVID-19 list) both missed their first game of the season. … Michal Kempny, who spent three seasons in Washington from 2017 to 2020, made his season debut after not playing last season. … Washington was 0-for-6 on the power play and are now 1-for-27 since Nov. 30.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of penalties and penalty minutes in the game.