WASHINGTON (AP) — In a game that didn’t feel much like the postseason, the Washington Capitals gave future playoff opponents fair warning about how they handle tight games.
Outshot by a team eliminated from contention, Washington stayed close before tying it late and beating the New York Rangers 3-2 in overtime on Wednesday night. Braden Holtby stopped 35 of 37 shots, Lars Eller forced overtime and Evgeny Kuznetsov won it to push the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals closer to their fourth consecutive playoff appearance.
Even if it wasn’t the kind of showing the Capitals would like to have come playoff time, Eller’s goal with 1:50 left and Kuznetsov’s 38 seconds into overtime showed what they could do when it matters.
“I think we play better when it’s close,” Holtby said. “With our skill, I think it forces us to turn things on late in the game and I think guys take that as a challenge. That’s I think a reason why you can see us bring it to a next level to try and force the other team into feeling a bit of panic and open up space.”
There was little panic in the Rangers, who were playing their first game with no playoff implications since 2004, and they turned that looseness into a 37-33 shot advantage. Henrik Lundqvist made 30 saves and Kevin Hayes and Ryan Spooner scored, but New York lamented a defensive miscue on Eller’s goal that let the game slip away.
“So frustrating,” Lundqvist said after his first game with no hope of playoffs in his NHL career. “When you’re tied up that late after playing so hard and doing so many good things, it doesn’t matter where you are in the standings, you want to win games and sit in here and feel good about a win. They came back and got it. It bothers me.”
After the Capitals came back and got two valuable points, they can clinch with help around the league or by picking up a point Friday at home against Carolina. There are lower expectations on Washington this year after back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and second-round exits, but Holtby said making the playoffs was a goal at the start of the season.
It’s within reach now.
“It’s the first step on the way,” Eller said. “We want to win our division and go into the playoffs on a high note.”
Holtby looks like he could be heading into the playoffs on a high note after almost two months of struggles and a minor lower-body injury. He would have liked to stop Spooner’s third-period goal on a shot that beat him clean, but with a question of whether Holtby or Philipp Grubauer will start, it helped that the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner finally looks like his normal self again.
“I felt comfortable,” Holtby said. “It’s something I’m not used to — not playing much. The stamina and such was a little different than I was used to, but it felt good to go out there and just get to work and play in a high-intensity game.”
There are many more high-intensity games to come for the Capitals, who can soon exhale about making the playoffs and prepare for the next step.
“The NHL how it is, it doesn’t really matter where you are in the standings,” Holtby said. “The guys should be proud. We should be proud we’re in a position like that.”
NOTES: Rangers assistant Lindy Ruff missed the game after hitting his head on the ice at practice Thursday. Coach Alain Vigneault said Ruff was hospitalized and diagnosed with a concussion but was in good spirits and expected to be back with the team in a few days. … F Shane Gersich, a 2014 fifth-round pick who signed with Washington last week after his season at North Dakota ended, made his NHL debut. … Pheonix Copley backed up Holtby because Grubauer felt a “tweak” in the Capitals’ game at the Rangers on Tuesday, according to coach Barry Trotz.
Rangers: Return home to face the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night.
Capitals: Host the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night.
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