The Washington Post

Momentum shifts back to Florida after OT defeat

- BY SAMANTHA PELL

The Washington Capitals were right where they wanted to be Monday night, holding a one-goal lead as the final minutes burned off the clock at Capital One Arena. But just as the Capitals were moments away from celebratin­g a triumphant, series-tilting win, the Florida Panthers came roaring back.

Sam Reinhart found the equalizer late in the third period before Carter Verhaeghe notched the overtime winner less than five minutes in as the Panthers scored a 3-2 win in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series, knotting the back-and-forth matchup at two wins apiece. Washington, which had a chance to toss the Presidents’ Trophy winners into a 3-1 hole, now faces a best-of-three series against the NHL’S top team.

Yet as the series shifts back to Sunrise, Fla., for Wednesday night’s Game 5, the Capitals, the NHL’S best road team in the regular season, seemed unfazed. Washington already has a win in Sunrise — its 4-2 Game 1 stunner set the tone for this series, even though Florida found some answers in a Game 2 blowout. Despite the Panthers having the momentum — and home-ice advantage again — the Capitals remain confident, with their veterans pushing the notion of a calm, collected dressing room despite Monday’s deflating loss.

“In third period, it was everything in our hands,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “. . . We’re going to play best-of-three right now. There is no panic.”

Monday’s dagger was Verhaeghe’s second goal of the game: He collected a big rebound from Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov, took advantage of traffic in the crease and beat Samsonov over his left shoulder at 4:57. The Capitals challenged for goaltender interferen­ce — Florida winger Jonathan Huberdeau was in the crease with Washington center Lars Eller — but a quick review ended in the Panthers’ favor.

“This is going to be long series — we know that before,” Kuznetsov said.

Kuznetsov’s breakaway goal at 9:31 of the third period had given Washington a 2-1 lead and realistic hopes of taking a strangleho­ld on the series. After T. J. Oshie’s hard hit on forward Sam Bennett created a loose puck in the neutral zone that Alex Ovechkin shoveled to Kuznetsov, he waited out Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, then sent the puck over his outstretch­ed body as the crowd erupted and Kuznetsov busted out his bird celly.

But Florida wouldn’t go quietly. With Bobrovsky pulled for an extra attacker — and not long after Garnet Hathaway barely missed a long-range shot at the empty net — Reinhart gathered a bouncing puck and got the equalizer from the slot with 2:04 left. The puck beat Samsonov, dinged the right post and went in, leading to overtime.

Samsonov, making his second straight start, finished with 29 saves. He had a handful of timely stops, including one on Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov on an odd-man rush right after Kuznetsov’s goal. Bobrovsky wasn’t as busy and finished with 14 saves.

The Panthers, who shuffled their lines and defensive pairings, were on their heels after a handful of early unforced errors but eventually found their way. After an ugly 6-1 loss in Game 3, interim coach Andrew Brunette criticized his players’ intensity and lack of desperatio­n, saying his team appeared to be playing “nervous.” In Game 4, Florida, which set a salary cap-era record for goals in the regular season, looked ready for a defensive affair.

After getting out of the first period with the score tied at 1, Washington was lucky to exit the second period in the same position. The middle period was filled with whistles. The Capitals could not convert an early power-play chance, then couldn’t capitalize on a five-on-three late. In between, Washington was assessed three straight minor penalties. Defenseman Martin Fehervary was dinged for two of them — once for hooking and then for high-sticking.

The bright spot for Washington, which was outshot 12-4 in the period, was its penalty kill. The unit has shined in this series, stopping all 13 of the Panthers’ powerplay opportunit­ies. The Panthers went 0 for 4 in Game 4. The Capitals improved to 5 for 17 after Oshie converted in the first period.

Samsonov’s strong play on the penalty kill was noticeable. He made a few point-blank stops in the second period, drawing more chants of “Sammy! Sammy! Sammy!” from the home crowd. They served as another pat on the back for the hero of Game 3, when he made 29 saves in Washington’s blowout victory.

In Game 4, he looked calm and collected and fed off his team’s defensive play, but Florida’s late push made the difference.

“Second period wasn’t our best, but that’s why we’ve got Sammy in net — he gives us a chance to fight for that game,” Kuznetsov said.

Oshie opened the scoring with his third goal of the series at 7:15 of the first. On a power play, he jumped and deflected defenseman John Carlson’s point shot with his right skate, and the puck bounced past Bobrovsky. It was his second power-play deflection goal in as many games.

Verhaeghe tied the score at 1 at 14:08 off an odd-man rush with defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Fehervary was the only defender back; he handled Ekblad, who moved the puck to Verhaeghe. He was all alone and beat Samsonov with a bouncing puck.

Wilson missed a third straight game with a lower-body injury that he suffered early in Game 1. The physical winger has not skated with the team since. His status for the rest of the series is unclear; he remains listed as day-to-day. Rookie Connor Mcmichael again took his place in the lineup.

“Right now, it still remains dayto-day with him,” Coach Peter Laviolette said. “I understand that’s not the answer that you guys want, but that’s actually where it’s at.”

The Capitals nearly managed another win without him Monday, but instead it’s back to South Florida with a lot more work to do.

“It is going to be a tough, long series, so move on,” Ovechkin said. “Forget about it; move on.”

 ?? PHOTOS By KATHERINE FREY/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Sam Reinhart scores late in the third period, poking the puck past Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov.
PHOTOS By KATHERINE FREY/THE WASHINGTON POST Sam Reinhart scores late in the third period, poking the puck past Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov.
 ?? ?? Fans at Capital One Arena were just minutes from seeing the Caps take a 3-1 series lead before the Panthers rallied with two goals.
Fans at Capital One Arena were just minutes from seeing the Caps take a 3-1 series lead before the Panthers rallied with two goals.

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