John Erskine played goal a few times as a kid during road hockey games, and on Tuesday night as the Capitals clinched the Southeast Division title with a 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets he dusted off those skills once again.
“I know how to do a two-pad stack,” Erskine quipped with a toothless smile.
While Braden Holtby finished with 25 saves against the Jets the Capitals received two critical stops from the 6-foot-4, 220 pound defenseman in the first period.
“He’s kind of like our unsung hero,” Jason Chimera said. “I don’t know if we have an award for that, but he’s always a guy that’s hitting, banging bodies and he’s playing good defensively and a hell of a save, too. So that was nice.”
Erskine’s first save came with 4 minutes 12 seconds gone in the first period. The Capitals were already up 1-0 on a goal by Matt Hendricks when the Jets broke up ice on an odd-man rush. Holtby stopped the initial shot by Andrew Ladd, who then got his own rebound and sent the puck over to Bryan Little on the left side of the net.
Erskine dove to block Little’s shot, which was aimed at a wide open net as Holtby scrambled to recover from the shot on the right side, and preserved the Capitals’ advantage.
“The puck went to the guy that was open there and it looked like Holtsy wasn’t going to be able to get across and I just flew across and tried to do the two-pad stack,” Erskine said. “I think I might’ve got like a little piece but then [John Carlson} came in and got it.”
A little more than nine minutes later, with 13:51 gone in the first and Washington still working on a one-goal lead, Erskine prevented the Jets from tying the game again.
Jets forward Aaron Gagnon deflected a shot in front, sending the puck off Holtby and then up over the goaltender’s head. The puck bounced down to the blue paint and then back up and perilously close to the goal line when Erskine reached in and swatted the puck away from the net.
“I saw it go up off Holtsy and it looked like it was going in behind him. I just tried to get behind him and get my stick there and tip the puck out,” Erskine said. “It’s a play that anybody would’ve done. I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time and kept the puck out.”
The play was close, but it had been ruled no goal on the ice. When the referees requested further review of the play there wasn’t conclusive evidence to overturn the call.
“He’s our third goalie right now,” Alex Ovechkin deadpanned when asked about the rugged defenseman’s saves.
While Erskine downplayed the saves, it was simply the latest example of the veteran blueline stepping up when the Capitals needed him to this season. Erskine, 32, has averaged 18:25 of ice time this season and taken on a top-four role under Coach Adam Oates, brought consistent toughness to the roster, chipped in some unexpected offense (3 goals, 2 assists) and now made a few key saves.
“He played great tonight, obviously. He’s been playing like that all year,” Holtby said. “He’s always there. He’s always in the defensive spot to make those plays. It was huge tonight for us.”
Said Matt Hendricks: “We all know what Ersk brings. He started off the season scoring goals and putting points up and that’s not what he brings on a night-to-night basis. He brings that gritty style of hockey, very responsible but he’s going to do anything to win a hockey game. He’s going to do anything to help. You expect that from him every night, I’m glad he’s on our side and not on the other.”