Washington Capitals’ ‘Wagons’ prove instrumental as team clinches Southeast

The Capitals defeat the Winnipeg Jets, 5-3, to clinch their fifth Southeast Division title in six years. (Travis Swain for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC./The Washington Post)

With his full gear still on and hair dripping with sweat following a jubilant postgame television interview Tuesday, Washington Capitals forward Matt Hendricks decided a shout-out to “the Wagons” was necessary.

It’s the name that has been bestowed on Washington’s depth players in recent years, the sort of term that only those who relish blocking 100-mph slap shots instead of scoring goals can appreciate. But at this moment, minutes after the Capitals clinched their fifth Southeast Division title in six years, it was a pretty good night to be part of the club.

Hendricks, forward Jason Chimera and defenseman John Erskine — all three of whom proudly proclaim themselves “Wagons” — had been voted the stars of the game. In the first period alone, Hendricks scored Washington’s first goal, Chimera tallied the second and Erskine made two saves covering for goalie Braden Holtby.

“Some games we get those chances. Some games we don’t. . . . But it’s getting to be that time of the year when everyone needs to chip in,” Hendricks said.

“You see it every year with the teams that seem to go far. They have that third- and fourth-line scoring where, they’re not scoring every game, but they seem to get a big one when the team needs it.”

This, it seems, was the other story line on an evening when the Capitals locked up the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference ahead of next week’s start to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Though Washington’s top two lines — featuring stars such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer — have carried the scoring burden as the Capitals clawed their way back to the top of the division, the role players will become exponentially more important once the postseason begins.

“It’s what this team needs every once in awhile,” said center Matthieu Perreault, who set up Chimera’s goal and scored another off a rebound Tuesday. “We cannot rely always on our big guys.”

Nobody knows this better than Coach Adam Oates, an assistant coach last year when the New Jersey Devils advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. New Jersey’s fourth line of Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier accounted for 21 points and a plus-11 rating in 24 playoff games, and became a major story line during the Devils’ run.

As Oates noted Wednesday, “It’s funny how every team has those guys that surface in the playoffs.”

Perhaps with that in mind, General Manager George McPhee announced Wednesday that Washington had rewarded depth forwards Eric Fehr and Aaron Volpatti with two-year contract extensions. Fehr will earn $1.4 million next year and $1.6 million in 2014-15. Volpatti is due to make $1.15 million over the next two years.

Their potential contributions in the postseason aren’t lost on Washington’s more high-profile players, either.

“They can be the difference makers and I don’t think that’s what people understand,” defenseman Mike Green said. “The deeper you are, the better off you’re gonna be. The teams are obviously looking at the number one line to shut down and it’s up to your third and fourth lines to pitch in and get goals.”

There was no better example of that than Tuesday, when Washington’s third and fourth lines combined for three goals and three assists against the Jets. And even when they weren’t scoring, both lines consistently pinned Winnipeg in its defensive zone by cycling the puck and applying constant pressure.

With Washington nursing a lead in the third period, Oates also relied on his secondary lines to shut down the Jets’ comeback bid late. Every player on the Capitals’ roster had more than 10 minutes of ice time during Tuesday’s game.

Add in Washington’s dynamic top lines, and an array of defensemen that have become increasingly adept at picking their spots on the offensive end in recent weeks, and it’s no wonder the Capitals have morphed into the relentless team Oates initially envisioned when he began training camp back in January.

“It gives a little bit of relief to the top guys,” fourth-liner Jay Beagle said. “Minutes-wise, they’re not as gassed. If they get playing over 20, 22 minutes, it’s tough for those guys to have energy at the end of the game when we might need them.

“For us to be able to soak up some of those minutes, and also bring energy and keep those lines rolling and keep everyone fresh, that’s how you win championships.”

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