COLUMBUS, Ohio — In their last game before a 10-day break, the Washington Capitals were determined to bank a pair of pivotal points against an inferior opponent Tuesday night.
The visitors started strong by jumping to a two-goal lead, but the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Eastern Conference’s last-place team, pushed them to overtime in a game that never should have made it that far.
Washington finally pushed the Blue Jackets aside when Evgeny Kuznetsov scored just 26 seconds into the extra period for a 4-3 victory at Nationwide Arena, but the Capitals again struggled to put together a full game.
Washington led 3-2 heading into the third period, but the Blue Jackets’ Johnny Gaudreau tied it on the rush with 7:16 to go. Washington was on its heels as regulation concluded, but Kuznetsov ended up the hero by taking a neat pass from Marcus Johansson and beating Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo with a wrister from the right side. It was his first tally since Dec. 29 — ending a goalless stretch of 14 games — and his seventh of the season.
Before the late heroics, defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk was the Capitals’ highlight of the night, lighting the lamp twice for the first time in his NHL career. His six goals this season set a career high; he had five for Chicago in the 2016-17 season.
The Capitals (27-20-6) still hold the Eastern Conference’s first of two wild-card spots with 60 points. Pittsburgh, the second wild card, has 57 points and four games in hand. Buffalo (56), the New York Islanders (55) — who acquired high-scoring Bo Horvat in a blockbuster trade with Vancouver on Monday — and Florida (54) are not far behind.
Washington went 6-7-1 in January. With the All-Star Game looming Saturday and their bye week up next, the Capitals will not play again until Feb. 11, when they visit NHL-best Boston.
Washington goaltender Charlie Lindgren made just his third start of January and his first since Jan. 17. Lindgren looked shaky at times but managed to turn away 31 shots. Korpisalo finished with 30 saves.
Garnet Hathaway got Washington started when he tipped a Lars Eller shot past Korpisalo 5:06 into the first period. It was his eighth goal of the season and his sixth in 14 career games against the Blue Jackets.
Van Riemsdyk’s first goal, on a sneaky snap shot from the blue line, gave the visitors a 2-0 lead with 5:32 left in the period, but the Blue Jackets answered quickly. Defenseman Andrew Peeke got Columbus on the board 12 seconds later; his shot from the high slot appeared to be a double deflection — off Alex Ovechkin’s stick, then van Riemsdyk’s pants — that beat Lindgren.
The back-and-forth game continued with van Riemsdyk’s second goal at 8:26 of the second. Kuznetsov made a nice feed from behind the net to a wide-open van Riemsdyk in front.
Eric Robinson cut the Capitals’ lead to 3-2 at 11:03. He finished a two-on-one rush with Mathieu Oliver after a T.J. Oshie turnover.
Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ win:
Washington struggled to jump-start its offense in January. Coming into Tuesday’s game, Washington had averaged 2.69 goals in the month, which ranked near the bottom of the NHL. In seven of its previous 11 games, Washington had scored two goals or fewer.
Some of the Capitals’ top players remain in lengthy goal droughts. Lars Eller has not scored since Dec. 27, Anthony Mantha has not scored since Dec. 31, and Conor Sheary has one goal in his past 16 games.
Johansson’s strong stretch
As many of his teammates struggle, Johansson has emerged as a steadying force. He has two goals and two assists in the past five games and has worked well with fellow Swede Nicklas Backstrom, who is looking better and better since his return from hip resurfacing surgery in early January.
Washington re-signed Johansson to a one-year, $1.1 million contract in July in a somewhat surprising move after he struggled at the end of last season. He has 13 goals and 14 assists in 53 games.