Caps hold off Canes’ third-period push to win playoff opener

Rod Brind’Amour knew what was coming, and the Carolina Hurricanes coach tried to convey that to his team.

The Hurricanes had not been in the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2009. The Washington Capitals were the defending Stanley Cup champions, hardened, confident, talented, playing at home, determined to win another Cup.

“We talked about it at length,” Brind’Amour said Thursday before Game 1 of the Canes-Cap playoff series. “At the end of the day it’s all about the experience of it. They’re going to get punched in the mouth right away. It’s going to hit you. It doesn’t sneak up on you. I’m sure there will be a little bit of a feeling-out process for our guys. I just hope it doesn’t take too long.”

The Caps did not sneak up on the Canes come game time. They hit the Canes in the mouth with three goals in the opening period, two by Nicklas Backstrom and a third from Alex Ovechkin, but then had to hold on for 4-2 victory at Capital One Arena.

Rookie forward Andrei Svechnikov scored twice for the Canes in the third period. Lucas Wallmark assisted on both goals as the Canes, who had been building a game after the nightmarish first period, made a strong push.

Canes goalie Petr Mrazek made some sparkling saves early in the third -- on Nic Dowd and Carl Hagelin -- and Svechnikov and his line then gave the Canes some offense. Svechnikov’s second goal, on a one-timer from the right circle with 12:34 left in regulation, finally quieted what had been a festive crowd.

“He was struggling, for two periods,” said Brind’Amour, who shuffled his lines during the game. “But he keeps playing, was able to get us back in the game. That’s good on him. He didn’t look out of place, especially in the third. He took a big step in my opinion.”

The Canes, trailing by a goal, had two power plays later in the third -- the second with 3:36 left in regulation when T.J. Oshie high-sticked Sebastian Aho and the Canes pulled Mrzaek for an extra attacker. But Lars Eller’s empty netter with 37 seconds left sealed it.

“Tough game,” Brind’Amour said. “Special teams got us. That’s pretty much the whole story. We gave them two power-play goals, so there’s your game.”

The Canes came out hitting in the playoff opener. Micheal Ferland and Justin Faulk were banging and there were a lot of pushes and shoves around the Caps net in front of goalie Braden Holtby.

The Caps did not have a shot on goal in the first 9:34 of the game as the Canes forecheck was effective. But once they did ...

Backstrom carried the puck into the Canes zone and unleashed a wrister from the right circle that beat goalie Petr Mrazek high to the glove side -- a shot that appeared to stun Caps fans and Backstrom.

Then, Canes penalties. Faulk high-sticked Ovechkin. Ferland was called for interference.

The Caps efficiently took advantage on the power plays. Evgeny Kuznetsov found Backstrom alone in front of the crease for a tap-in. On the second power play, Ovechkin set up in his usual, lethal spot, in the left circle, for a couple of heavy shots, then crashed the net to bang in a rebound after the Canes failed to clear.

Defenseman John Carlson earned his third assist of the period, Caps fans broke out into a “back-to-back” chant and the strains of “Sledgehammer” were heard on the arena organ when the period ended. -- an appropriate choice it seemed.

“Everything kind of went their way in the first,” Canes center Jordan Staal said. “They came out strong. If our P.K. (penalty kill) was a little better off the start, a little more aware, including myself, I think it would be a different scenario. But give the guys credit. We bounced back and played our game and made it interesting.”

The Canes outshot the Cap 29-18 but also had 17 shots blocked and 23 attempts that missed the net.

It was a frustrating opening period for the Canes, who played so well over the last 45 games of the season to end a nine-year playoff drought. They had a few good offensive chances -- Staal had a point-blank look, Jaccob Slavin made Holtby make a tough save late in the period -- but couldn’t convert.

The Canes did kill off a Svechnikov penalty early in the second and got their first power play when the Caps were called for too many men on the ice. But the Caps both killed off that penalty and roughed up the Canes on the kill, and tempers began to rise.

Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen rammed into Aho well after Aho had passed the puck and Canes captain Justin Williams had a few words with a ref after a whistle stopped play. But the Canes kept on playing.

The Canes have chance to even the series Saturday in Game 2, and perhaps will have a lot of the jitters behind them.

“We know we can’t get frustrated against that team,” Staal said. “They play a tight defensive game and they don’t give you much. ... We can build on that.”

Added Svechnikov, “We never give up. We’re looking forward to the next game.”

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In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.