In a crucial late-season game for the Washington Capitals, facing the potential of clinching the Southeast Division or slipping behind the Winnipeg Jets and almost out of playoff position, the Caps put together a playoff-caliber effort in Tuesday night’s 5-3 home victory over the desperate Jets.
Spearheading Washington’s efforts were Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera, Nicklas Backstrom, Mathieu Perreault, and Alexander Ovechkin, who each scored a goal in the victorious effort to sew up the franchise’s fifth division title in six seasons. Braden Holtby made 24 saves in the process of earning his 22nd win of the season.
Coming into Tuesday night’s game, the stakes were immense for both teams. A regulation or overtime win by the Capitals would clinch the Southeast Division title and home ice in the playoffs for D.C. A regulation win by the Jets would vault them into first place in the Southeast, and leave the Caps in perilous position at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff field. Any result in between would similarly make things uncomfortable for Washington going into its final two games of the season.
Both teams launched into the first period with an energy level befitting the stakes at hand. Less than a minute after Hendricks opened the scoring, John Erskine recorded perhaps the finest save of the game when he slid across the crease to block Bryan Little’s shot from the right faceoff dot. Holtby was drawn out of the crease earlier in the sequence, and only Erskine’s stacked-pad save prevent the Jets from equalizing.
Erskine then matched the goal-saving effort later in the first, when he cleared a puck off the goal line after it eluded Holtby’s save attempt. The call on the ice was no goal, and it took a lengthy review from Toronto to confirm that fact. NHL’s operations office had a notable presence in Washington on Tuesday, as they also took several minutes to confirm that Backstrom’s goal, which the center redirected with his skate blade wasn’t intentionally kicked in.
That marker, late in the second frame, re-established Washington’s lead just 37 seconds after the Jets knotted the game at two apiece on a quick wrist shot by Blake Wheeler from the high slot.
Perreault’s goal several minutes later extended the Caps’ lead once again to a two-goal margin, which shrank to one with Nik Antropov’s wrist shot with eight minutes left in regulation. However, the Caps held strong, killing off a minor penalty and otherwise keeping the play out of Holtby’s end. An empty net slap shot by Ovechkin finished the game’s score line, and extended the Washington captain’s league-leading goal total to 31.
Despite the success of winning the Southeast Division crown, to a man the Caps claimed they were aiming toward higher goals.
“It’s not a big deal,” said Holtby of securing the division title. “The Stanley Cup, that’s the only thing that matters.”
Early in the first period, an unlikely scorer opened the scoring with an unlikely goal, when Hendricks banked a shot from behind the goal line off the back of Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and into the net. It was Hendricks’ fifth goal of the season and first since early March, and the winger was so excited afterward that he ran over Winnipeg defender Paul Postma in the course of his celebration.
“It was a great feeling, [but] that’s not what I’m here to do,” said Hendricks, normally known for his hustle and fighting ability rather than his scoring touch.
Another snakebitten teammate, Jason Chimera, potted his third goal of the season toward the end of the frame when he took a beautiful centering pass from Perreault and then chipped his own rebound over Pavelec’s blocker.
The two-goal lead energized Washington’s players and fans going into the first intermission, but that excitement was quickly squelched when Winnipeg’s Evander Kane got his team on the board just 16 seconds into the second period, as his wrist shot from the right faceoff dot beat Holtby inside the far post. Wheeler equalized the score later in the period, only to see Backstrom redirect a beautiful centering feed from Ovechkin with his skate past Pavelec and into the net less than a minute later.
Perreault’s goal, which doubled the Caps’ lead on the Jets to 4-2, was more of a conventional scrum in front of the net. Jack Hillen carried the puck across the blue line and zipped a wrist shot on net, upon which the entire line of Perreault, Chimera, and Eric Fehr pounced on the rebound. After several whacks at it, Perreault eventually flicked the disc over Pavelec’s back and into the gaping net.
Midway through the third period, Washington had two dynamite chances to extend its lead when Aaron Volpatti and then Jay Beagle both hit the post in a roughly 20-second span on a dominating Caps shift in the offensive zone. Neither struck paydirt, however, and when Antropov wristed a shot from the high slot into the top left corner a few minutes later, things began to look desperate for the boys in red.
However, just as he seemingly has all throughout the month of April, Ovechkin bailed his teammates out when he took Backstrom’s pass at the blue line and blasted a slap shot into the empty net to guarantee the Caps’ win and secure their playoff berth. Now Washington has a chance to improve its record in its final two games, at home against the Ottawa Senators and then the Boston Bruins, but the important question has been settled and now the Caps can approach the remainder of this week secure in the knowledge that at least four additional games await them in the postseason.