- The Washington Times
Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Not long after he scored his team’s first goal in Tuesday’s 4-2 win over the top-seeded Florida Panthers, Tom Wilson headed back to the locker room with a lower-body injury. The Capitals winger didn’t play again that evening.

But the Capitals still prevailed, in part, because they found ways to replicate the sort of tough-nosed brand of hockey that Wilson has made a career of. 

There was Alex Ovechkin, for example, poking out the puck on a Florida possession to set up Evgeny Kuznetsov’s game-tying goal in the third period. There was Anthony Mantha, throwing his body around for a game-high 10 hits. And there was T.J. Oshie, zipping through the ice to be in the perfect position to redirect Nicklas Backstrom’s pass into the evening’s game-winning goal.

The Capitals not only upset the best team in the NHL — record-wise at least — on Tuesday, but the victory provided a template for how they can win the rest of the series. 

To keep the league’s most high-powered offense in check, the Capitals spent much of the contest in their offensive zone — outshooting the Panthers 38-32 in shots on goal and 61-59 in shot attempts. Washington played hard, physical defense that largely prevented Florida from getting out in transition. And the Capitals avoided careless turnovers, not allowing the Panthers to seize on odd-man rushes.

Washington had to overcome a second-period deficit, though its performance showed the team was more than capable of doing so. 

“We believe (in) ourselves,” Kuznetsov said. “This game could give us a lot of positives. … We have a veteran group of guys. We have great coaches. They’re going to make adjustments and say the right words. We know it’s going to be a long series and it’s going to be hard every game.”

It will be more difficult, of course, if Wilson isn’t available. Laviolette said Wednesday the 28-year-old would be a game-time decision for Thursday’s Game 2. After initially suffering the injury, Wilson tried to go back on the ice to skate during a timeout, but was barely able to do so.

But the Capitals weren’t fazed by the Panthers, with players suggesting before the series that there’s a big difference between regular-season and playoff hockey. Washington, after all, is arguably the more experienced group as its core had tangible playoff success. All four of Washington’s players who scored Tuesday — Wilson, Kuznetsov, Oshie and Lars Eller — won the Stanley Cup with the team in 2018, for instance. 

Washington, though, found contributions from those who weren’t part of that Stanley Cup run. Starting goaltender Vitek Vanecek was steady, stopping 30 of 32 shots with a .938 save percentage. Mantha, taking extra shifts for an injured Wilson, finished with nearly 20 minutes of ice time.

Mantha, in particular, missed more than half the season with a shoulder injury. But upon returning from surgery in March, the 27-year-old closed the year out strong with seven goals and 10 assists across the last two months of the season (27 games). He provided a different — and needed element — against the Panthers.

Mantha smiled when asked about the hits. He corrected a reporter who suggested that they were his most since joining the Capitals. In fact, he grinned, the 10 hits were his most in a game ever. 

“It’s playoff hockey,” Mantha said. “That’s how I wanted to play (Tuesday) and hopefully that’s how I keep playing the whole series.”

Mantha said he hopes the physicality has a cumulative effect, hoping the Panthers will eventually wear down as the series goes along. Even after Game 1, the Capitals seem prepared for a lengthy series. The Panthers have a wide array of talented goal scorers, and their offense has beaten a lot of teams. 

Mantha cautioned that the Capitals have to be ready for any Florida push. Just a year ago, the Capitals also took a 1-0 lead against the Boston Bruins — only to be swept the rest of the series and be eliminated from the first round in five games. 

But the Capitals stayed disciplined against the Panthers in Game 1. And as a result, they were the first team to beat the Panthers in regulation when trailing after two periods this season. Before that, the Panthers were 39-0-1 when leading after two periods in the regular season.

“We were very collected as a group,” center Nic Dowd said. “The bench was very calm. We stuck to our game plan until the end and it worked.”

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

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.