Matt Niskanen is usually a pretty steady player who doesn’t look for big hits. But when he does look to lower the boom, boy is it brutal.
Late in the second period of game six, former Capital Mikhail Grabovski tried to carry the puck behind Braden Holtby‘s net. Instead, he was crushed with a beautiful shoulder-to-shoulder hit by Niskanen.
If the Caps win today in game six, not only will they advance to the second round of the playoffs, but they’ll also close Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum forever. Next year, the Islanders are moving to Brooklyn, NY, to play in the Barclays Center.
When CSN Washington’s Chuck Gormley asked Caps captain Alex Ovechkin about this possibility on Friday, he strayed from the team’s message that it was just another game.
Thursday’s 5-1 win over the New York Islanders was the best Capitals’ playoff victory win since 2009. Now, if the Caps can get just one goal over the Isles, they can advance to the next round and shut down Nassau Coliseum for good.
Crash the net. Finish the fight. Shut down the barn.
For the last four seasons, the Capitals had been on a steady decline. During their Bruce Boudreau era runs for Presidents’ Trophy, they were D.C.’s team. For fans since the 70’s and young transplants in suits, Rocking the Red was all the rage.
In 2011, the team started going downhill. Boudreau was fired, with three coaches taking his place since then. Meanwhile, the Nationals got good. The Caps were no longer fashionable. The hockey wasn’t the same either. Instead of exciting run-and-gun matches, the Caps played overly defensive games and then, under Adam Oates, just plain bad ones, missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Despite claiming a sellout every night, Verizon Center was littered with empty purple seats.
“We love this,” Karl Alzner, who scored Thursday, told me. “The fact that we see everybody getting excited for it and feeling good about our team and about our chance at winning some games, that’s what’s exciting for us.”
There was a time when we doubted he’d ever show up, but, last March, Evgeny Kuznetsov finally came to the Caps. Three KHL seasons after George McPhee winked at a TSN camera and drafted the young Russian, Kuznetsov left his hometown team, Trakor Chelyabinsk, to live in Alex Ovechkin’s house in Arlington, Va., and play North American hockey. Thursday night was his coming out party.
After going scoreless in his first four career playoff games, Kuznetsov tallied two goals and an assist in game five. It wasn’t so much that he scored or recorded a team-high three points, it was the confidence that Kuznetsov oozed. We saw it on display all the time in the KHL– from his wacky celebrations, brash interviews, and constant production of highlight-reel plays– but that swagger hasn’t come easily this season. Kuznetsov had to learn a new position, center, and he had to learn how to be successful in a new, nuanced system under veteran head coach Barry Trotz. On top of that, the 22 year old had to learn a new culture and language.
On Thursday, those struggles and insecurities evaporated in front of 18,506 at Verizon Center. It was beautiful to watch.