UNIONDALE, N.Y. – With points at a premium for the playoff-chasing Washington Capitals, rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov was the difference for his struggling team.
Kuznetsov scored in regulation and had the only goal in the shootout to lift the Capitals to a 4-3 win over the New York Islanders on Saturday and keep Washington’s flickering playoff hopes alive. Nicklas Backstrom and Joel Ward scored to tie the game midway through the second after the Islanders took a 3-1 lead.
Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby stopped all three Islander attempts in the shootout after making 35 saves and Washington snapped a five-game losing streak to move within two points of Columbus for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Capitals are 9-2-0 in their last 11 games at Nassau Coliseum.
“We battled back, that’s the key,” said Backstrom, whose 15th goal of the season at 12:45 of the second made the score 3-2. “We had to do whatever was necessary to get those two points.”
Both teams had chances in overtime. Holtby denied Brock Nelson point-blank at 3:35 and Evgeni Nabokov stopped Alexander Ovechkin in the closing seconds of the five-minute extra session.
John Persson and Frans Nielsen had given the Islanders a 3-1 lead midway through the second, but the Capitals fought back to tie it 3-3 heading into the third. Persson’s goal was his first in the NHL, coming in his fifth game since being recalled from AHL Bridgeport on March 27. The goal at 4:16 of the second was assisted by defencemen Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan.
“It’s a great feeling, that’s for sure,” said the 21-year-old Persson, one of nine rookies in the Islanders lineup. “I wish we had come out on top, but we played a strong game. The effort was there.”
The Islanders came out swarming, playing the same hard-edged game they’ve exhibited in recent weeks with the rookie-laden lineup. Despite playing without its top two forwards, John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, New York came in with a three-game winning streak. New York is 5-0-2 in its last seven games and 7-2-2 in its last 11 contests.
But once again, the Islanders allowed a two-goal lead to slip away as they fell to 31-35-11, last in the Metropolitan Division.
Cal Clutterbuck opened the scoring at 12:55 of the first, firing his 12th of the season past Holtby with assists from Casey Cizikas and Michael Grabner, who returned after missing nine games with concussion symptoms but left again after only seven shifts.
The Islanders kept the pressure on the Capitals throughout the first, outshooting the visitors 17-8.
Washington tied the game at 2:36 of the second on Kuznetsov’s goal. The 21-year-old Russian centre was the Capitals’ first-round draft pick in 2010 and made his NHL debut on March 29.
Nielsen put New York ahead 3-1 with a power-play goal at 9:55 of the second, one-timing a slick pass from Josh Bailey past Holtby from the top of the right circle. Matt Donovan also assisted on Nielsen’s career-best 24th of the season.
But Backstrom cut the lead in half before Ward tied it was his 23rd at 15:01 after a giveaway in front by Islanders defenceman Thomas Hickey.
The Capitals (35-30-13) have been struggling to stay in the playoff race. They lost 2-1 to the Devils in New Jersey on Friday and are 2-3-3 in their last seven games.
“All we can worry about is ourselves,” Backstrom said. “You can’t control anything else, but how you play as a team. We feel like we have our confidence back after this win.”
The Capitals have four games remaining.
NOTES: Ovechkin needs one goal for 50 this season. He would be the 11th player in league history to score 50 goals or more five times. . The Islanders are 25-10-4 when they score at least three goals and are 6-25-7 when they do not. … Following the game, the Islanders recalled defenceman Scott Mayfield from Bridgeport after de Haan left the game with an upper body injury.