WASHINGTON — So what if the Washington Capitals’ goalie was a last-minute rookie replacement, making his second NHL appearance all season?
So what if Alex Ovechkin’s club had played nearly 5 1/2 periods without ever holding a lead, and was facing a two-goal hole that was getting close to putting Washington in a two-game series deficit against the New York Islanders?
So what if those Islanders seemed to block every shot at one end, then turn every odd-man rush into a goal at the other?
Sometimes a group that will try new things when the going gets tough, the Capitals were determined to stay the course this time. Nicklas Backstrom delivered a goal and two assists, and Ovechkin scored once, leading the Capitals and fill-in goalie Philipp Grubauer to a 4-3 comeback victory over the Islanders on Friday night that evened the first-round playoff series at 1-all.
"Just because it doesn’t work right away, doesn’t mean it’s not working. You’ve just got to keep doing the same things and the right things — and I thought we did," Washington coach Barry Trotz said. "You could see it turning."
"When we play our game, (when) we stay in their zone, everything can happen," he said.
After Washington’s two stars — Ovechkin led the NHL in goals, Backstrom was No. 1 in assists — both scored to erase a 3-1 deficit, Jason Chimera netted the go-ahead goal with 12 1/2 minutes left.
"Stuck with the gameplan," said Chimera, who had only seven goals in the regular season. "We wanted to stick with it, no matter what happened."
Chimera, who was whistled for penalties at the 20-minute mark of the second and third periods in the Capitals’ 4-1 Game 1 loss Wednesday, sent a wrister past Jaroslav Halak to give the hosts their first lead of the series. Chimera’s initial shot was blocked, but the puck came right back to him, and he didn’t miss on the second chance.
"We got a little less aggressive," Islanders captain John Tavares said. "You know, not moving our feet as much."
The series shifts to New York for Game 3 on Sunday, and Game 4 on Tuesday. The Islanders are playing their last season at Nassau Coliseum, their home since 1972, before moving to Brooklyn.
"We’re going to come with some pretty serious intensity in Nassau, so it’ll be up to them to match us," said Cal Clutterbuck, who scored New York’s first goal on its second shot.
Ryan Strome and Kyle Okposo also helped give the Islanders leads of 2-0 and 3-1 by putting the puck past Grubauer, a 23-year-old German called up from the minors Friday to replace ill starter Braden Holtby.
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Asked what adjustments he made after the first period, Grubauer shrugged and replied: "Just stop the puck. It’s not rocket science."
Washington came out far more active Friday than in Wednesday’s flat Game 1, maintaining possession for significant stretches. The problem? While the Capitals took shot after shot after shot in the first period — 31 times in all, they sent the puck in the general direction of the net in the first period — the Islanders blocked 15.
"They were shooting from everywhere," said Halak, who made 31 saves.
The Capitals’ near-constant pressure finally paid off with 8 1/2 minutes left in the second period, and both of their first two goals came after an Islanders player’s stick was broken while being used on a block — "sawed off," as Trotz put it.
First, defenceman Karl Alzner made it 2-1. Then, after Okposo restored New York’s two-goal lead, Backstrom passed to Matt Niskanen, whose shot went off Halak’s pads and to Ovechkin.
The three-time NHL MVP poked in the puck, then celebrated with a high leg kick.
The Capitals led the league in power-play percentage, and on their first opportunity Friday, Backstrom made it 3-all when a trio of Islanders let him skate down the middle unimpeded.
"They kind of wanted me to pass, I think," Backstrom said. "I was so far in there, I was like, ‘Might as well give it a try."’
After Chimera put the Capitals in front, Grubauer made the lead stand, to loud choruses of "Groob!" from the fans.
NOTES: Ovechkin’s goal was the 32nd of his career in the playoffs, a team record. … Trotz said Holtby would travel with the team to New York, adding: "Maybe a little Long Island air and some sunshine there will do him good."