SportsPulse: Playoff hockey is here and is certain to be unpredictable. We get you ready for the insanity and predict who’s going to hold Lord Stanley’s cup this summer.
Often the key to winning the Stanley Cup comes down to figuring out how to win games that you probably should lose.
The defending champion Washington Capitals reminded everyone how much they know about that subject when they withstood a Carolina Hurricanes’ third period rally to win 4-2 in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
The Capitals were not at their best. They were out-shot 29-18. They seemed to lose their drive after building a 3-0 lead. T.J. Oshie took a bad penalty late in the third period while the Capitals were scrambling to hold a one-goal lead.
The ‘Canes, with goalie Petr Mrazek making big third period saves, could have, maybe should have, won this game.
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But when the game was on the line, the Capitals found a way to survive. When the ‘Canes cut their lead to a goal, the Capitals dug in. That’s what champions do.
Nicklas Backstrom scored twice for the Capitals, but his two blocked shots late in the third period were equally important. Nic Dowd’s ability to clear a puck out of the Washington zone as he was falling to the ice was also crucial. Lars Eller preserved the win with a 145-foot empty-netter.
The win was made more noteworthy because it came the day after the Tampa Bay Lightning also built a 3-0 lead in their opening game of the playoffs.
But they couldn’t hold off the charging Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets cut the Lightning lead one goal and then tied it on a shorthanded goal by Josh Anderson and won it on Seth Jones’ power play goal.
The Lightning couldn’t stop the bleeding. The Capitals could.
We can guess that captain Ovechkin’s message to the Capitals was that they have to play much better if they want to repeat.
But this was an important win. Make no mistake about
Based on how gritty the Capitals were when the game was on the line, it seemed as if part of their Game 1 mission was to remind everyone that they are the defending Stanley Cup champion and still boast the same swagger and passion they displayed last spring.
The enthusiasm Alex Ovechkin showed after scoring Washington’s third goal said the Capitals want us all to know that they intend is to pick up where they left off last June.
Based on a record-tying 62-win regular season, the Lightning were considered the Stanley Cup favorite heading into the playoffs. But their top players failed to step up in their first playoff game and the result was a loss that no one saw coming.
Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov, all of whom scored 40 or more goals in the regular season, registered no points in the Lightning’s loss.
Contrast that to Washington’s first game when the Capitals’ first line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Tom Wilson did the heavy offensive lifting in the victory. Backstrom scored twice and No. 1 Washington defenseman John Carlson registered three assists.
The Capitals were able to thwart a Carolina power play in the closing moments. It ended up a 6-on-4 when Carolina pulled a goalie. The night before the Lightning couldn’t find a way to prevent the tying and winning goals against Columbus.
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It sure looked as though the Capitals were trying to tell us we made a mistake when we listed the Lightning as the Cup favorite.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Kevin Allen on Twitter @ByKevinAllen.