- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2022

The back-and-forth series between the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers continued to yo-yo on Monday night. 

Two days after the Capitals took a 2-1 series lead, the top-seeded Panthers bounced back with a 3-2 overtime victory to even up the first-round matchup. 

Evgeny Kuznetsov gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead midway through the third period, but Sam Reinhart tied the game for the Panthers with 2:04 remaining. Florida winger Carter Verhaeghe then scored the game-winner nearly five minutes into overtime — his second goal of the contest — with a slapshot past Washington goaltender Ilya Samsonov. 

The series now returns to Sunrise, Florida, for Game 5 on Wednesday night, as the Capitals look to continue the seesaw series with a win before coming back to Capital One Arena for Game 6. 

Despite the loss, Kuznetsov said the team knew coming into the series that it would be a “long” one and that one defeat won’t change the team’s mindset. 

“We’re going to play best-of-three right now,” he said. “There is no panic. Still pretty good chance.”

Much like Saturday’s tilt, Game 4 at Capital One Arena began as a physical contest. Garnet Hathaway set the tone early with a big hit less than 30 seconds into the game. Then, two minutes later, Alex Ovechkin got into the action with a smash of his own. 

After two slick saves by Samsonov, who started Game 4 after 80 minutes of impressive play in replace of Vitek Vanecek, Washington looked sloppy on its first power-play opportunity. But the Capitals received another chance with the man advantage, and they didn’t squander it. 

John Carlson’s point shot redirected off T.J. Oshie’s leg and into the cage past Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

Verhaeghe then tied the game with 5:52 left in the first, finding the back of the net on an odd-man rush during a 4-on-4. Capitals defenseman Nick Jensen committed to Aaron Ekblad, but the Panthers blueliner found an unmanned Verhaeghe, who slipped the puck past Samsonov. 

Neither team scored in the second period, but Florida had its chances to take the lead with three power-play opportunities in an eight-minute span. But the Capitals remained stout on the penalty kill, shutting the Panthers each time. Florida ranked fifth in the NHL during the regular season by scoring on 24.4% of their power-play chances. However, the Capitals, who have five power-play goals themselves in the series, have killed all 13 of Florida’s power plays in the last four games.

Kuznetsov’s goal to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead with 10:29 remaining came after a Panthers turnover caused by a punishing hit from Oshie. The 29-year-old Russian had a one-on-one with Bobrovsky, remaining patient by holding onto the puck as long as possible before nestling it into the net. 

“That’s a big play,” Kuznetsov said about Oshie’s hit. “All our system is like that, to force them to cut to the middle. It’s one of those plays that we have to be patient and wait for those. It’s not going to happen every game and not going to happen every period. But in terms of [Oshie], he’s a big player for us and he’s a hell of a guy in the locker room.”

Samsonov then stopped several shots to stave off the Panthers, who led the NHL in the regular season with 4.11 goals per game and outshot the Capitals 32-16, but Florida pulled its goalie and finally broke through with Reinhart’s goal. The score, which was the first playoff tally of Reinhart’s career, took some of the air out of Capital One Arena, and the frustration was evident as Hathaway immediately slammed his stick on the ice. 

Despite allowing the game to go to overtime, Capitals coach Peter Laviolette and Ovechkin both said the third period was Washington’s best. 

“I think third period, we played well. We played solid, kind of turned around the game,” Ovechkin said. “At the end, it was bad bounces and it goes in. As I said, it is going to be a tough, long series, so move on. Forget about it, move on.”

The Capitals didn’t have too many scoring chances in overtime, and Verhaeghe’s scorching slapshot sent Washington and its fans home dejected. 

The officials briefly reviewed the game-winning goal for suspicion of goalie interference. Jonathan Huberdeau was in the crease when Verhaeghe’s shot blew past Samsonov’s glove, but the review determined the goal was valid.

“I’m not sure what it is,” Laviolette said about the review and what the officials told him. “They said that Lars [Eller] helped him in there. I thought Lars was trying to get him out of there. The goaltender’s got to be able to make a save.”

Game 5 at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida, is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday. 

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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