WASHINGTON – Cheers from fans made Ilya Samsonov cry on his way to his first playoff win in the National Hockey League.
Chants “Sami! Sami!” He followed one of the many important balls he saved in Washington’s 6-1 win over Florida in Game Three on Saturday. Samsonov rebounded after allowing an early goal and the Capitals bounced back from a massive loss in Game 2 to take the lead in the series against the President’s Cup-winning Panthers.
Samsonov made 29 saves in his first post-season debut, taking charge of Vitek Vanessek and giving his teammates and coach Peter Laviollette exactly what they had hoped for from a goalkeeper whose game ranges from star-studded to suspect. From big saves in tight on Florida captain Alexander Barkov to a Sam Reinhart stand that sparked cheers, this was Samsonov’s best in time.
“I’m ready all the time,” he said. “Sometimes the qualifiers start, sometimes another goalkeeper, but you have to prepare for every match. I understand if you want to win, you need to win 16 matches.”
Capitals will take two more times this tour to start. Fourth game on Monday in Washington.
Alex Ovechkin scored in the power game and assisted in TJ Oshie’s goal in power play. Marcus Johansson, Trevor van Rimsdijk and Garnet Hathaway also scored, and Jon Carlson contributed to the empty net for the capitals, who lost 5-1 in Game 2 and fell short early in Game 3 behind the new goalkeeper’s play. A miserly effort thwarted the best attacking league in the National Hockey League.
“We all know qualifying has its ups and downs,” said Oshi, who redirected Ovechkin’s shot past Sergei Bobrovsky to score his goal. “The team wins one game, the other team will make some adjustments and face you twice in the next game. They did that in Game 2 and it was our turn to respond in Game 3, and I think the boys have done a really good job since the disc fell all the way.”
Samsonov got a nod over Vanecek in the net after comfortably stopping all 17 shots on Thursday. He got off to a rough start, conceding a goal for Major League Player nominee Jonathan Huberdeau after less than three minutes – then stopping every shot he saw the rest of the way.
“I got a little nervous in the first five minutes, but that’s normal for a goalkeeper,” Samsonov said. “Having saved a couple, I feel fine, both physically and mentally.”
With Samsonov backbone in power and short, Washington’s penalty kicks improved to 9 of 9 against Florida, who finished fifth in the power game this season with less than 25%. The Panthers also led the league by scoring more than four goals per game.
But this streak against an opponent with more experience in post-season hockey—seven players left from the 2018 Stanley Cup Washington—was another hard lesson for the Panthers about how to win the playoffs. Unwise penalty kicks by top defender duo Mackenzie, Wiggar and Huberdeau set the stage for strong play goals, a missed defensive stint opened the door for Johansson and a corner turn led to Van Rimsdijk.
“For me, the frustration took hold, for some reason,” interim coach Andrew Bronte said. “When you get frustrated it usually means you’re not working hard enough. Our competition hasn’t been what it has been all year. It can be nerves. But we have to find a way. You get frustrated when you don’t work hard. That’s kind of the case now. You do. Undisciplined things because you’re frustrated.”
Similar mistakes cost Florida in the first round last year: a loss to Tampa Bay en route to their second consecutive Lightning Championship. Only this time, the Panthers were expected to take a deep run after accumulating the NHL’s best 122 points in 58 victories in 82 games.
If they don’t win another three over the next week, it will be another disappointment for the franchise, which has not advanced in the playoffs since 1996 and entered the post-season as one of the favorites to lift the trophy. Defenseman Brandon Montour said the Panthers weren’t really ready to play.
“It’s a hockey game — it’s going to be tight,” Monor said. “We just have to play more aggressively. From here it starts.”
The 8th ranked Eastern Conference Capitals improved to 4 from 12 over the power game in the series. They are guaranteed to win at least two more home games this spring, although Monday won’t be easy against the angry Panthers and La Violet knows that.
“If we don’t pursue it,” he said, “it’s on us.” “It needs to be pointed out from now on. We have to make sure our mentality knows exactly where they are.”
Notes: Ovechkin’s goal was his 72nd in the playoffs, tying with Patrick Marleau and Esa Tikkanen for 14th on the careers list. His 28 goals in playing power tied for seventh place. …Capitals right winger Tom Wilson missed the second game in a row with a lower body injury. …Conor McMichael made his National Hockey League debut, replacing Brett Leeson, who took Wilson’s place in Game 2.