“The way we started there were a lot of doubters,” said Matt Hendricks, who recorded the first goal of the game. “Our fans were against us a little bit, the media was hard on us a little bit. But we came and did what we set out to do and it’s a great feeling.”
As the sellout crowd on F Street stood in salute for the final four minutes of regulation and well after the victory was sealed, it was a night for validation.
For at least a little while, the Capitals get to enjoy the reward from all the practices and games spent making gradual improvement. The positive details that nurtured confidence and helped instill the belief in this group, which sat 10 points out of the division lead as recently as March 10, that it could eventually succeed.
“I think the beginning of the year when it was new coaching staff, new system, we change our lines and we just don’t know how to play,” said Alex Ovechkin, who recorded an empty-net goal for his league-best 31st goal of the season. “We need some time to realize how we have to play. It take us probably 15 games, maybe 16 games to realize it. We try to find the lineup, we try to find good chemistry and it started working after 15, 16 games.”
While Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom both scored, in this critical game it was role players who stepped up early and often. Hendricks along with third-liners Jason Chimera and Mathieu Perreault each recorded a goal and rugged defenseman John Erskine wrote a new chapter as a folk hero by helping to keep two pucks out of the net.
The Capitals dictated the flow of the game from the outset, winning races to loose pucks and setting up a base camp in the offensive zone with the forward lines rolling with strong shifts one after another. In a game teeming with a postseason-like intensity, it didn’t surprise Coach Adam Oates to see some of the Capitals’ lesser-known figures assert themselves.
“It has a more playoff feel. Those guys contribute a lot, and you know, they really got us into the game and had great games,” Oates said. “It was a hard-fought game. The building was electric. They played very well, I thought. We generated 40-something shots and played good. It kind of had a playoff atmosphere to it. We’ll talk about that tomorrow and move on.”
Hendricks fired a sharp-angle shot from along the goal line that banked off Jets netminder Ondrej Pavelec (36 saves) and in for a 1-0 Washington lead, 3 minutes 14 seconds into the first. On the ensuing shift, though, the Jets were perilously close to tying things up.