It didn’t take long Thursday night for a preview of what an Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup between the Capitals and Ottawa Senators might look like, or for the teams to work their way under each other’s skin.
Just less than 16 minutes into Ottawa’s 2-1 overtime victory, Senators agitator-in-chief Chris Neil hit Jason Chimera from behind and sent the Capitals forward crashing into boards. Steve Oleksy didn’t see the hit, but he didn’t need to in order to know the appropriate reaction.
“I knew something had happened but was trying to get over there as quick as possible,” Oleksy said. “If somebody does something like that to one of my teammates I’m definitely going to go over there no matter who it is and try to stand up for my teammates. I was trying to get over there and somebody grabbed me from behind and the ref kind of got between us.”
Despite being restrained by an on-ice official, Oleksy strained himself trying to break free, yelling at Neil.
That’s the 33-year-old winger’s objective, to rile up his opponents and if at all possible get them to take a penalty. Neil is known for targeting opponents and on any given shift you can see him seeking out big hits, sometimes focusing on one particular player, with the goal of stirring things up and irritating an individual foe or an entire team.
“I played against him in junior for a year or two and in the minors and here,” said defenseman John Erskine, who had an occasional chat and stare-down with Neil on Thursday. “I know what he’s all about. He just plays hard and you’ve got to be careful you just don’t retaliate with him.
Regardless of whether the Capitals see Neil and Ottawa or another team in the first round of the playoffs, most opponents will try to throw them off their game one way or another in the postseason. The important part is minimizing the damage caused by any reaction and being able to maintain focus on the game at hand.
As Thursday’s game wore on it seemed as though every play in and around either team’s net resulted in a post-whistle dust-up.
“Probably a little bit more than we’d like,” said Capitals Coach Adam Oates, who was later asked specifically about Neil. “He’s one of those guys that plays on the edge. He got a boarding penalty early in the game. It maybe could have been a five, depending on the situation or who calls it. That gets frustrating. But he’s a guy — he finishes his hits. He skates well. He brings a lot of force behind him, so you’ve got to know he’s on the ice.”
In the final minute of regulation, Mike Ribeiro was caught up in a fracas and was sent to the penalty box for roughing after getting a few shots in against Kyle Turris. Meanwhile, Jason Chimera received a 10-minute misconduct even though he was on the bench during the fray.
Ribeiro’s penalty paved the way for Sergei Gonchar’s game-winning tally in overtime. While the game itself meant little to the Capitals, it offered a glimpse of what one potential playoff matchup could hold.
“I think it would be an entertaining series, that’s for sure,” Karl Alzner said. “I think we were just getting frustrated by kind of the way that things were going for us, so that’s what you saw.”