First Step – Washington’s wild and sometimes improbable drive to a seventh Southeast Division crown in 14 seasons ended successfully on Tuesday night with a 5-3 win over a determined but weary and battered Winnipeg Jets team. After a dismal 2-8-1 start to the truncated 2012-13 campaign, the Caps came all the way back and claimed their fifth division title in the last six seasons with two games to spare.
“Obviously it feels good right now,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “It was a very good hockey game too, that iced it. It was a hard-fought game. The building was electric. [The Jets] played very well, I thought. We generated 40-something shots and played good. It had a playoff atmosphere to it.”
From the opening puck drop, the Caps’ game plan was crystal clear. Roll four lines, punish the Jets – who played a road game on Monday night in Buffalo – and dominate them at even-strength.
The Jets showed a lot of heart and resolve, but the Caps were relentless.
Each of Washington’s four forward lines roared through its first shift, spending time in the attack zone and working the Jets down low. The Caps’ fourth line had the fourth shift, and Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks battled down low on the left side. Beagle jimmied the puck off the wall to Hendricks, who cut below the goal line and fired a bad angle shot toward the cage. The puck seemed to bank off the back of crouching Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and into the net for a 1-0 lead at 3:12 of the first.
“That was all skill,” Hendricks joked. “Beags made a great play kicking it out to me. I noticed [Pavelec] was off the post, and he kind of went down in a little different position than you’re accustomed to seeing. I just threw it in there and got lucky.”
Winnipeg had the first of two “near goals” just a bit later in the first. Caps goalie Braden Holtby came out to the top of the crease to make a save on Jets captain Andrew Ladd. Ladd got the rebound and passed to Jets pivot Bryan Little, off to the left of the cage. With Holtby seemingly unsure of the puck’s whereabouts in the immediate aftermath of the stop on Ladd, John Erskine slid through the crease in two-pad stack mode, getting a piece of the shot. The puck wobbled into the crease, and John Carlson then swooped in and swept it from harm’s way.
“It didn’t look like Holtsy would get across there,” recounts Erskine. “I figured I’d run over. I played some goalie when I was a kid at road hockey, so I did the two-pad stack and I think I got a piece of it.”
Erskine was whistled for tripping on the same sequence, but the Caps killed off that minor without incident.
Near the 14-minute mark of the first, Winnipeg’s Ron Hainsey kept a puck in at the Washington line and fired from the left point. Aaron Gagnon appeared to get a piece of it, and the puck and it popped up into the air and rolled down Holtby’s back and onto the goal line. At the last possible second, Erskine swept the disc off the line, denying the Jets a sure goal with a short video review to confirm.
Late in the period, Washington’s third line worked the puck around behind the Winnipeg net. Mathieu Perreault and Jason Chimera worked a give and go behind the net, then Perreault threaded a pass to the front and Chimera took a whack at it. Pavelec made the stop, but Chimera drove the rebound home for his third goal of the season.
“We went in there on the forecheck and got the puck,” says Chimera. “[Perreault] got it behind the net and when he gets it with time he usually makes a pretty good play with it. He’s a crafty little guy. I just got open for him and he made a great pass. I had a couple whacks at it and the second whack went in.”
Less than half a minute after Chimera’s goal gave the Caps a 2-0 lead, Caps winger Aaron Volpatti took an unwise retaliatory slashing call on Jets defenseman Mark Stuart, who had given Volpatti a shot as the puck was on its way out of the Washington zone. The Caps killed off the first 1:39 of that penalty – the portion that came at the end of the first – but Winnipeg cashed in early in the second.
The Caps won the opening face-off of the second period, and Carlson dumped the puck down ice and behind the Winnipeg net. Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien retrieved the puck and passed it to Evander Kane in neutral ice. Kane zipped up the right wing wall and into the attack zone. He let a shot fly from the right half-wall, and it beat Holtby to halve the Caps’ lead to 2-1.
Washington continued to dominate the Jets at even-strength, but the Caps weren’t able to cash in on several golden opportunities to increase their lead. Late in the period and late in an overly long shift, Caps defenseman Steve Oleksy fired a puck around the back of his own net in a bid to get it safely out of the zone. Jets forward Nik Antropov stopped the puck along the wall threaded a perfect backhand pass to Blake Wheeler, who was lurking down low on the left side. Wheeler sniped a one-timer high to the glove side on Holtby to make it a 2-2 game.
The Caps needed less than a minute to regain their lead.
Erskine got the puck to Nicklas Backstrom, who passed to Alex Ovechkin in neutral ice. Ovechkin tore off down the right wing wall with the puck. Just as he passed the dot, the Caps’ captain passed to Nicklas Backstrom, who was driving the net. The puck glanced off Backstrom’s skate and into the net to make it a 3-2 game.
Less than three minutes after Backstrom’s goal, the Caps restored their two-goal cushion. Perreault carried into the zone on a rush. He left it for Eric Fehr in the high slot, but Fehr fanned on the shot. Defenseman Jack Hillen was there, and he fired away. Pavelec made the save up near the top of the paint, but he couldn’t corral the rebound. Perreault did, chipping it over the prone goalie and into the net to give the Capitals a 4-2 lead with 2:26 left in the second.
Washington kept its foot on the gas, but was unable to add to its lead in the third. The Jets drew to within a goal on an Antropov wrist shot from the high slot with 8:10 left. With just over five minutes left, Perreault got a stick up in Antropov’s grill, and the big Jets center snapped his neck back and sold the call to give the Jets a late power play and a chance to draw even. But Washington’s penalty-killing outfit killed off the minor without as much as a shot on net.
“I was really nervous, to be honest,” says Perreault of his two-minute sentence in the sin bin. “But the guys did a really good job to bail me out and kill that penalty. It’s not a good feeling at all but I’m very happy the guys got the kill.”
“It was huge,” says Holtby of the Caps’ late penalty kill. “They didn’t get a shot on it. That’s a credit to those guys, those guys who were skating hard all night and working hard. You never want to take a penalty in the last five minutes, especially when you have a lead. But it didn’t faze us, and we killed it off.”
Ovechkin sealed the deal with an empty-netter in the waning seconds, sending the Caps to the playoffs and dealing the Jets’ flickering playoff hopes a harsh blow.
“They had some injuries,” notes Hendricks of the Jets. “They played [Monday] night, and they’ve been battling hard for the last month, as have we. It was definitely our number one point tonight – to get down on them, get gritty, get pucks deep, wear their defensemen out. We were able to do what we did. But give them a lot of credit because they battled back tonight. They were a desperate, tough hockey team to play tonight, that’s for sure.”
There is much work still to be done. The Caps have been playing for three months, and they've won 26 games. But they take little joy from winning the Southeast; they've done that before. The goal is to play for two more months, to win 16 more games after the regular season ends this Saturday.
“It’s not a big deal,” says Holtby of clinching the division. “To me those things don’t matter. It’s the Stanley Cup that’s the only thing that matters. This is a step in the right direction, but we have a lot more work to do, and it starts now.”
Washington has rolled along at a 24-10-1 clip in its last 35 games after its rugged first 11 games. That pace – if sustained over a full 82-game NHL season – would produce 115 points.
Wagon Train – While the likes of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Holtby, Mike Green, Troy Brouwer and Mike Ribeiro did a lot of the lamp-lighting during Washington’s second-half resurgence, the “wagons” like Hendricks, Beagle, Aaron Volpatti, the third line of Chimera, Perreault and Fehr and the unheralded blueline trio of Erskine, Hillen and Oleksy kept up their end night in and night out, although those rewards weren’t always evident on the scoresheet at night’s end.
On Tuesday, the wagons and company did most of the heavy lifting, contributing the game’s first two goals and Perreault’s game-winner. Erskine and Hillen chipped in with assists, and Erskine made two goal-saving defensive plays. Chimera had a goal and a helper, Volpatti and Beagle were constant threats, and Fehr added a plus-2 to run his team best mark to plus-14 on the season.
“They played unbelievable today,” says Ovechkin of the third and fourth lines. “Hendy’s line and Perry’s line was on fire. They scored a huge three goals for us. Chimmer can’t score almost all year and right now we need him to score and he’s scoring goals. I hope that’s going to give him more confidence.
“The fourth line, you can see they keep the puck in [the Jets] zone and they checked hard. Hendy’s goal was huge.”
Spreading The Love – Ten different Capitals collected at least a point in the game, and three different lines scored a goal. Seventeen of Washington’s 18 skaters had at least one shot on net; only Johansson was without one at night’s end.
The Leader Ladder – Ovechkin’s 31 goals are three more than Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos. Ovechkin now has 53 points, fourth in the NHL and three off the league-leading pace of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.
Backstrom is tied for eighth in the NHL with 48 points and Ribeiro is tied for 10th with 47. With 40 assists, Backstrom is third in the league, two behind front-running Martin St. Louis of Tampa Bay. The Lightning has three games remaining to Washington’s two.
Holtby’s 22 wins are tied for fourth in the league and are two fewer than pace-setter Antti Niemi of San Jose.
Brouwer is tied for 13th in the league with 19 goals.
No Power Required – Washington did not have any power play chances in the first 40 minutes while Winnipeg had two. But the Caps were still able to forge a 4-2 lead after 40 minutes, doing so entirely with even-strength dominance.
The Capitals owned a decisive 54-32 advantage in shots attempted after two periods, and seven of Winnipeg’s 32 bids came on the power play. At even-strength, the Caps more than doubled the Jets up in shot attempts in the game’s first 40 minutes and they also owned a wide 31-12 margin in shots on goal after the game’s first two periods.
“We had some big minutes played by our third line and fourth line that wore them out all game,” says Holtby. “It seemed like every time I looked down there it was those lines grinding it out in the corners and whatnot. They got rewarded with a couple of huge goals. At five-on-five, those guys played outstanding tonight.”
So Long Southeast – Tonight’s game was Washington’s last-ever Southeast Division game. The Caps finished the season with a 15-0-3 mark against division opponents, despite losing the first two divisional games they played. Washington finished out the campaign with nine straight divisional triumphs and 15 wins in their last 6 games against Southeast foes.
The Caps went 185-97-44 in their 326 regular season Southeast Division games over the last 14 seasons.
By The Numbers – Erskine led the Caps with seven blocked shots … Green led the Caps with 24:27 in ice time … Carlson led the Capitals with 3:16 in shorthanded ice time … Perreault won eight of 12 draws (67%) and Brouwer five of six (83%) … Byfuglien led the Jets with 26:50 in ice time and five shots on goal … Wheeler led the Jets with six hits … Eric Tangradi led Winnipeg with four blocked shots … Alex Burmistrov won 10 of 15 draws (67%) for the Jets.