- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Washington Capitals spent weeks leading up to the playoffs wondering if they could just get healthy. Then on Saturday, when the postseason actually started and the Capitals appeared closer to full strength,  the injury bug struck again: Starting goaltender Vitek Vanecek got hurt midway through the first period. In his playoff debut.

But the Capitals had enough. They had T.J. Oshie — battling through his own pain, no less.  

Oshie set up the game-winning goal in Washington’s 3-2 victory over the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of Washington’s first-round playoff series — firing the puck from the blue line that deflected off Nic Dowd’s stick and past Bruins goaltender Tuuka Rask with 15:19 left in overtime. 

Dowd’s goal was initially reviewed for offsides, but was confirmed upon review.  The goal was also originally credited to Oshie, though officials determined the puck went off Dowd. Still, “Take Me Home Country Roads” — Oshie’s goal song — blared through the speakers at the arena as the crowd of 5,000 cheered. 

The fact that the Capitals withstood Vanecek’s injury spoke to their depth. Backup Craig Anderson, the 39-year-old who played in just four regular-season games, stopped 21 of 22 shots. The Capitals, in general, limited the Bruins to just 26 shots on goal. 

“I think the biggest thing was just he is so calm and poised with what he did,” Dowd said of Anderson. “He played so well and it has got to be really challenging for any player to come off the bench like that and be forced into that situation, also being cold, I don’t know, there is a lot that goes into that, but I think our team has shown that we have done that all year and we’ve been able to be successful and guys have learned how to do it, to be honest.”

Anderson’s unexpected appearance was one of the several adjustments the Capitals had to make. Even prior to the puck drop, Washington’s lineup didn’t look completely normal. While the Capitals had gotten back stars Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson in recent days, they were still without center Evgeny Kuznetsov — leaving coach Peter Laviolette to put Oshie, a winger, as the team’s third-line center. Oshie, too, made his return after missing Washington’s season finale with a lower-body injury.

The Capitals’ series with Bruins figured to be physical given how the eight regular-season meetings between the teams went — and the intensity that increases in the postseason.  And that was certainly the case from puck drop. Within the first few shifts,  Ovechkin delivered a booming hit on David Krjeci. 

That set the tone for an aggressive approach by Washington. The Capitals controlled the puck early, spending a good amount of time in the offensive zone. Washington was finally rewarded for its efforts when Tom Wilson came flying from the left circle and went top shelf to put the Capitals on the board with 13:38 left in the first.

But whatever momentum the Capitals seemed to have evaporated when Vanecek went down. The injury, too, appeared to happen in a flash. The Bruins won the faceoff, setting up a wrist shot from Boston winger Jake DeBrusk that was buried in the back of the net.  As the play happened, Vanecek sprawled out his legs — only to quickly curl up as he rolled around the crease in pain. After being down for several moments, Vanecek gingerly went back to the locker room. 

Vanecek’s injury only further highlighted the uncertainty of the Capitals’ goaltending situation.  For the entire season, with long-time netminder Braden Holtby gone, Laviolette refused to establish a clear No. 1 goalie — rotating between mostly Vanecek, who spent the last five years in the minors, and Ilya Samsonov, the 2015 first-rounder. 

Samsonov, though, was unavailable because he — and Kuznetsov — have been out due to coronavirus protocols since May 3. Samsonov was removed from the league’s COVID-19 Unavailability List hours before Game 1, but has not skated in nearly two weeks. 

Vanecek did not return and Laviolette was noncommittal as to who may start Game 2 on Monday.

“Andy’s answered the bell really his whole career, but he’s answered it for us when we needed him,” Laviolette said of Anderson. “He truly epitomizes the concept of working hard every day so that when you get your opportunity you’re ready and that’s exactly what he did. 

“He’s had a great work ethic and a great demeanor the entire year in the role that we had him in and when called upon he’s played really well for us.”

Washington, instead, was left with Anderson, the soon-to-be 40-year-old whose birthday is next week. Saturday marked Anderson’s first postseason appearance since 2016-17, when Anderson was a member of the Ottawa Senators. 

The Capitals gave Anderson some help to start the second. Washington took a 2-1 lead when defenseman Brenden Dillon netted a shot that bounced past Rask. The goal was partially made possible by Ovechkin, who created traffic in front of the net and boxed out defenseman Jeremy Lauzon. Dillon’s shot, too, appeared to deflect off Lauzon’s stick and into the net. 

A bad sequence, however, can swing a period. That’s what happened when the Bruins tied the game almost eight minutes after Dillon’s goal. After a questionable icing call, Boston drew a penalty when Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov was called for high-sticking. The Bruins then took advantage: Winger Nick Ritchie deflected David Pastrnak’s shot through Anderson’s legs.

The third period was chippy for both teams. Washington was upset over the lack of penalty when Lauzon collided with Oshie — causing the winger’s helmet to go off. The Bruins, meanwhile, thwarted a Capitals push with Rask blocking shots from Michael Raffl and Lars Eller. 

Washington’s defense around Anderson, for the most part, was solid. Despite four Washington penalties, the Bruins only managed five shots on the power play. The Capitals were even better at full strength — allowing just 19 shots on goal through three periods. 

“The guys are all looking to each other to bond together and pull together on this rope and I’m right there with those guys doing everything I possible can to do my share,” Anderson said.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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