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Semyon Varlamov comes up big late as Islanders edge Capitals to conclude road trip

Islanders center Casey Cizikas, defenseman Johnny Boychuk and

Islanders center Casey Cizikas, defenseman Johnny Boychuk and goaltender Semyon Varlamov  celebrate after a win over the Capitals, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, in Washington. Credit: AP/Nick Wass

WASHINGTON — Semyon Varlamov kept turning aside the Capitals’ chances in a lopsided third period, many from below the faceoff dots. Told later 18 of his 36 saves came over the final 20 minutes, the Islanders goalie wasn’t surprised.

“It seemed like it was a lot of shots,” Varlamov said. “But we were battling to the end. It’s Washington, they’ve got a lot of skilled guys. A lot of one-timers.”

The Islanders concluded the decade and a three-game road trip with a 4-3 win over the Capitals in a New Year’s Eve matinee at Capital One Arena.

It wasn’t as tight a defensive performance as Sunday’s back-to-basics 3-1 win at Minnesota — Varlamov made 25 saves in that game — with the Capitals finding space around the Islanders’ crease. But the Islanders (25-10-3), who went 2-1-0 on the trip and pulled within six points of the first-place Capitals (27-9-5) in the Metropolitan Division, continued to regain their confidence after a 1-3-1 skid in which they allowed 24 goals.

“I think a lot of guys would say the last three weeks we’ve been inconsistent with our play and we haven’t played the way we wanted to for full 60s,” said Casey Cizikas, who scored twice. “We did a great job building toward what we have to do and that’s two games in a row where we’ve committed ourselves and we haven’t given up and we’ve played a full 60.”

Evgeny Kuznetsov scored twice for the Capitals, who skated six-on-four for the last 60 seconds with Braden Holtby (18 saves) pulled for an extra skater and defenseman Scott Mayfield off for tripping T.J. Oshie.

The Capitals managed to get just one shot through to Varlamov in the frantic final minute, with defenseman Adam Pelech blocking a shot by Kuznetsov and both Alex Ovechkin and Oshie sending slap shots wide of the net.

Varlamov stopped Nicklas Backstrom at the crease at 12:38 of the third period and Tom Wilson from the slot at 15:25.

“They had a good push in the third but he stood tall,” captain Anders Lee said. “We had a lot of big blocks but a lot of big saves from him. There were two or three shifts in a row where they won the draw and kept it in and he won us that game for sure.”

The Islanders, who took just four shots in the third period, blocked 27 in the game, five of them by Mayfield.

The Capitals led 3-2 just 44 seconds into the second period as Kuznetsov got open in the slot for Oshie’s feed following Pelech’s turnover.

But the Islanders converted defenseman Radko Gudas’ turnover as Matt Martin fed Cizikas to the crease to tie the game at 3-3 at 4:27 of the second period. Tom Kuhnhackl, extending his point streak to three games with a goal in consecutive games playing on Mathew Barzal’s top line, scored the winner from the left faceoff circle at 12:34 of the second period.

“I didn’t mind the first two periods, they didn’t have many chances,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “The third period we were on our heels a little bit.”

The Islanders took a 2-0 lead at 10:39 of the first period as Brock Nelson snapped a shot past Holtby. Cizikas opened the scoring at 7:13 with a between-the-skates tip of Mayfield’s shot from the right point.

But Kuznetsov got free at the crease and stickhandled around Varlamov to bring the Capitals within 2-1 just 14 seconds after Nelson’s goal. Wilson, also getting space to operate at the crease, redirected Backstrom’s feed to tie the game at 2-2 at 14:17 of the first period.

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