For the first time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Washington Capitals pulled everything together at once.
Combine an increasingly physical style with impeccable special teams and great goaltending, then sprinkle in some goals from stars like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom — the Capitals followed every step of their recipe for sustained success in Saturday night’s 6-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
Something else was missing from that recipe for the first four games of this first-round series, until Saturday, when Washington’s bottom-six forwards finally made their presence felt. Contributions from the third and fourth lines — those that appear on the score sheet and those that don’t — are crucial in postseason hockey, and there were examples everywhere in Game 5.
The Capitals didn’t have a single even-strength goal from the bottom six for the first four games of the series; Lars Eller potted an empty-net goal in garbage time of Game 1, but for a while that was it. That changed Saturday when Brett Connolly, fresh off his career-best 22-goal, scored the game’s third goal on a nice pass from Ovechkin.
Connolly came on for Tom Wilson and scored before the rest of the line change could happen, but it was a third-liner’s goal nonetheless.
“I’ve had a couple chances,” Connolly said. “This time of the year you’re graded on what goes in, especially for guys who are getting paid to create offense, and it’s great to see one go in.”
Connolly added that his line — himself, Eller and Andre Burakovsky — had “for sure our best game” of the series. That was best illustrated by one long shift in the late stages of the first period. Though it didn’t result in a goal, the trio gained some extended offensive zone time with crisp passes, hustle to retain possession on rebounds and Burakovsky playing keep-away with the puck for a while, all of which served to wear Carolina down.
The bottom six can’t be discussed without factoring in the return of Devante Smith-Pelly. With T.J. Oshie likely out for the playoffs after needing clavicle surgery, the Capitals had to bump Carl Hagelin up to Oshie’s second-line spot and shake up their bottom six to compensate.
Smith-Pelly was called up from the AHL Friday and played his first game for Washington in more than two months. The fan favorite’s reputation as a “playoff performer” shone through, as his presence alone fired up the crowd at Capital One Arena and he knocked the Hurricanes around with five hits.
“Certain guys seem to have a knack for being big-game players,” coach Todd Reirden said the morning of the game. “What I want him to bring is the energy, his ability to get in on the forecheck. We have not done that nearly enough.”
Reirden got his wish, and other players said post-game that they drew on the energy Smith-Pelly provided simply by being there.
“He’s been through this before and has got some experience,” Backstrom said. “He’s a physical guy out there, too, and maybe not easy to play against. That’s a good thing to have. We’re happy that he’s back.”
Smith-Pelly skated with Chandler Stephenson and Nic Dowd, a trio with only 20 games of experience together in the regular season, which didn’t seem to matter Saturday. They capitalized on a Hurricanes blunder that left Dowd with the puck and an open sheet of ice ahead. Carolina defenseman Dougie Hamilton slashed him as he shot, but Dowd scored on the ensuing penalty shot.
Dowd was happy that Washington’s forecheck was better across the board.
“I thought F1 (the first forward to enter the zone) did a good job eliminating their first D-man and then our F2 (second forward) was able to beat their second D to the puck,” Dowd said, “and I thought it created some O-zone time.”
It’s now incumbent on the Hurricanes to bounce back from the Capitals‘ dominant performance and try to win Game 6 at home to stay alive. But where the Capitals have forward depth, the Hurricanes are running out of options. Three of their usual top-12 forwards have gotten injured during this series, forcing Carolina to play untested players like Patrick Brown and Aleksi Saarela, the latter of whom made his NHL debut — regular season or playoffs — Saturday.
Even without Oshie, the Capitals are healthier, and their depth forwards will need to offer up more performances like Game 5 in order to close out the series and keep advancing.
Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.