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Capitals rally to force OT but fall back into bad habits in loss to Panthers

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Capitals rally to force OT but fall back into bad habits in loss to Panthers

By Isabelle Khurshudyan Isabelle Khurshudyan Reporter covering the Washington Capitals Email Bio Follow February 9 at 10:40 PM Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov has a flare for the dramatic — from his wacky birdlike celebrations, to his dazzling passes, to his recent string of crunchtime goals. With his team 3 minutes, 6 seconds away from defeat, Kuznetsov rifled a shot from the right wall, tying the game, the third time he’s flashed some late-game heroism this week.

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But even that couldn’t salvage a game in which Washington repeatedly clawed back despite its repeated blunders. The Capitals lost to the Florida Panthers, 5-4, in overtime at Capital One Arena, the decisive goal coming from Mike Hoffman on a power play. Washington had limited its penalties and buttoned-up defensively over the past week, cutting down on allowing breakaways and odd-man rushes, but the Capitals fell back into some bad habits against the Panthers. The loss keeps Washington four points back of the New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division.

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Along with Saturday night’s late goal, Kuznetsov scored the game-winning tally in the last minute against the Calgary Flames on Feb. 1, and he also scored the overtime winner last game against the Colorado Avalanche. Since returning from the bye week, he has four goals with four assists in the past five games

But while Washington stormed back late in the third period, the first seven seconds of it couldn’t have unfolded much more disastrously for the Capitals. Center Nicklas Backstrom won the neutral-zone draw, but the puck skipped past defenseman Michal Kempny, who fell trying to corral it. Evgenii Dadonov got a breakaway as a result, and while goaltender Braden Holtby saved his shot, the puck got through his shirt. Florida’s Derick Brassard then scored on the rebound, and the Panthers were up, 4-2

But for a third time in the game, the Capitals’ third line scored to make it a one-goal game. Brett Connolly got his second goal and third point of the night; as he was falling in front of the net, left wing Andre Burakovsky passed the puck over to Connolly at the side of the net, and Connolly scored on his own rebound 6:12 into the third period. The trio of center Lars Eller with Connolly and Burakovsky accounted for all three Washington goals to that point. Kuznetsov’s equalizer came next, ensuring Washington at least one point

Connolly was assessed a slashing penalty with 3.6 seconds left in regulation, putting the Panthers on a four-on-three power play to start overtime. Hoffman ended it 1:31 into the extra frame

Braden Holtby gave up four or more goals for the third time in his last five starts. (Rob Carr/Getty Images) Since the Capitals returned from their bye week at the start of the month, Coach Todd Reirden has emphasized cutting down on penalties with Washington leading the league in minors. In a game against Boston a week ago, he benched forwards Kuznetsov and Dmitrij Jaskin for most of the first period after they were called for stick infractions in the neutral and offensive zones. The Capitals’ penalty kill hadn’t allowed a power-play goal in the four games entering Saturday, and with Florida’s man-advantage unit ranked third in the NHL with a 27.1 percentage, giving it too many opportunities was ill-advised

Winger T.J. Oshie was assessed a tripping minor in the offensive zone 10:54 into the game, and while the Panthers allowed more chances than they generated to start the power play, Frank Vatrano scored on a rebound in front one second after Florida’s man-advantage expired. Thirty-five seconds later, a point shot from defenseman Keith Yandle deflected off Oshie before bouncing past Holtby, lifting the Panthers to a sudden 2-0 lead

The Capitals’ penalty kill then weathered a questionable elbowing call on defenseman Christian Djoos, playing in his first game since Dec. 11. He had to have left thigh surgery for compartment syndrome, and his return to the lineup made this the first game all season that Reirden has had his full roster of players available to him, the team finally injury- and suspension-free 55 games in. That’s especially helpful with the trade deadline coming up on Feb. 25

One player rumored to be on the block is Burakovsky, who turned 24 Saturday. He’s on pace for career-low production, and because he’s set to become a restricted free agent this summer, retaining his rights would mean tendering a qualifying offer of $3.25 million, a steep cap hit for his current points total. Burakovsky has bounced all around the lineup, even a healthy scratch for a handful of games, but this was his second straight contest with Eller and Connolly, the team’s third line from the Stanley Cup finals last season

Five minutes into the second period, Burakovsky’s feed from the high slot was tipped by Connolly in front, cutting Florida’s lead to one goal. He scored a goal last game, and he now has five points in his past eight outings, bringing his season’s point total to 14

That trio was on the ice at the 9:17-mark of the second period, when forward Colton Sceviour got his blade on Aaron Ekblad’s shot to deflect it past Holtby, putting the Panthers back up by two goals. And then with less than a minute left in the frame, Washington’s third line was again involved in a goal, this time scoring it. Eller’s snipe from the left faceoff circle hit the back bar of Florida’s cage before bouncing out, and while Eller and Connolly both raised their arms in celebration, the horn didn’t initially sound. A video review confirmed the tally, cutting the Panthers’ lead to 3-2 through two periods

The third line would chip in one more goal in the third period, but it ultimately wasn’t enough