Washington’s regular season finale on Saturday against New Jersey was a preseason game for the postseason for both sides. The Caps went into the contest with no upward or downward mobility in terms of playoff seeding, and the Devils opted to rest a handful of regulars two nights after clinching their first playoff berth in six years.
For the Caps, the game was all about three things: maintaining the momentum they’d built in winning 11 of their previous 14 games, learning the identity of their first-round playoff opponent, and trying to get captain Alex Ovechkin to the 50-goal plateau for the eighth time in his NHL career.
Two out of three ain’t bad.
The Caps made it 12 wins in their last 15, downing the Devils 5-3. They learned that they’ll face the Columbus Blue Jackets next week in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Alas, Ovechkin ended the night – and the season – with 49 goals.
Washington’s 12-3-0 run to finish the season matches its third best finish ever over the final 15 games of a campaign; they also finished 2007-08 – Ovechkin’s maiden playoff voyage – with a 12-3-0 mark. Only in 1983-84 (12-2-1, 25 points) and 2012-13 (12-1-2, 26 points) did they perform better over the final 15 games.
“Statistic-wise, our record is good,” says Caps goalie Braden Holtby, who made 23 saves to earn his 34
th win of the season. “But I think it’s more important that we’re playing the right way a lot of the time because those points go out the window once the playoffs start. It’s more about where you’re at as a team, and I think we are continuing to build and push forward in the right direction. We have a lot of guys contributing right now, and it’s a good sign.”
Coming into Saturday’s game, Ovechkin needed a hat trick to reach the 50-goal plateau for the eighth time in his NHL career. He started the game's scoring at 2:21 of the first, taking a crisp cross-ice feed from Evgeny Kuznetsov and launching a one-timer past Devils goalie Cory Schneider to stake the Caps to an early 1-0 lead.
Given that the goal came on Ovechkin’s second-best scoring chance of that shift, odds seemed promising of him at least getting the required chances to threaten for 50; the Devils rested four of their best players and started Schneider in net; he was seeking his first win since Dec. 27, a dozen appearances ago.
New Jersey tied it up on a Nico Hischier strike at 8:10 of the first period. Devils winger Patrick Maroon worked from behind the Washington net, getting possession and threading a feed to Hischier, who netted the 20
thgoal of his impressive rookie season to knot the score at 1-1.
Washington nudged back in front in the final minute of the frame when Nicklas Backstrom took a slick pass from Brett Connolly and beat Schneider top shelf on a shot from the slot, giving the Caps a 2-1 lead with 28 seconds remaining in the first.
Early in the second period, the Caps’ fourth line put together a strong shift in the offensive zone, extending the Washington advantage. Chandler Stephenson left the puck for Shane Gersich down low on the right side. Gersich carried to the middle of the ice and slid a pass to Michael Kempny at the left point. Kempny walked it to the middle and let loose of a drive that beat Schneider, putting the Caps up 3-1 at 3:44 of the second.
In the middle stanza, it was the Devils who scored in the final minute. Once again, Maroon did the work from behind the cage, neatly setting up Miles Wood for a shot from the top of the paint to make it a 3-2 game heading into the final 20 minutes.
New Jersey tied it up early in the third when Maroon beat Holtby on the short side at 2:04.
Things began to get interesting on the Ovechkin front about three minutes after that. With his teammates beginning to funnel pucks to him almost faster than he could wind up and pull the trigger, Ovechkin took 11 shot attempts in the third period alone, getting five of them on net. He netted No. 49 at 5:11 of the third, scooping up a New Jersey turnover and ripping it past Schneider.
Ovechkin’s best chance at netting No. 50 came midway through the third when he came in all alone on a breakaway, only to miss the net once he pulled the trigger.
Andre Burakosvky restored Washington’s two-goal cushion at 11:50 of the third, taking a feed from Kempny and burying it to make it a 5-3 game.
Seconds later, the Caps finally got their first power play opportunity of the evening, and the Ovechkin Watch was back on. The Caps’ captain was on the ice for 6:04 of the final 8:10 of the game, and Washington had the man advantage for nearly half of that total time span.
Ovechkin had a couple of shots on net on the power play, he had a couple more near misses, and he had a shot blocked in the waning seconds of the game. It was almost comical how he just kept cranking pucks toward the net. He finished the night with 18 shots tries, getting eight of them on net. In his final two games of the season, he had 31 shot attempts, and had a dozen shots on net. Three of them went in, but some of his best looks at the net came in the 15 tries that missed the net.
“I had pretty good chances in the first and the second,” says Ovechkin. “In the third, the breakaway, I missed the net. But whatever. S**t happens.”
Although he narrowly missed an eighth season with 50 or more goals, he did claim his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s leading goal scorer.
“I said going into this [game] we would just go [with] four lines and not worry about match-ups,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “And then Ovi ended up with two, and the puck kept following him around. I just said, ‘Keep [your shifts] short, I’m going to use you a lot. See if you can go for it.’
“And the guys on the bench were trying. He must have had 25 shot attempts. And [the Devils] were standing next to him, too. That just tells you how good he is sometimes. I was praying that he would get 50, and everybody on the bench was, too. But still, 49 goals, there are not that many guys in this league that can do what he has done. He has been outstanding.”