Before the Capitals even began this season, they stated that their goal was to defend last season’s Stanley Cup championship, making the playoffs a foregone conclusion. But the goal that clinched that postseason berth was fittingly delivered by two players who don’t take that for granted.
“I mean, I’m excited,” Dowd said. “I’ve never even come close to clinching the playoffs or even playing in them, so I’m really excited. . . . It’s one of those things where you’re happy to get it out of the way and then we can resume the rest of the season and play well and then carry it on in the playoffs.”
Washington beat Carolina, 3-2, to extend its winning streak to three and maintain its three-point lead in the Metropolitan Division. With poor ice conditions at PNC Arena, the Capitals’ offensive depth came through, along with goaltender Braden Holtby, who made several stops from point-blank range in a 24-save night.
The Hurricanes were leading by one goal entering the third period, and just 1:35 into the frame, forward Jakub Vrana collected a pass from center Evgeny Kuznetsov at the offensive blue line and then got behind Carolina’s defensemen with his speed, beating McElhinney through the legs. Dowd’s goal then came with 4:56 left, a tip on Jensen’s shot.
“Fourth line, you go with them inside of five minutes in a tie game, you show confidence in those players and belief in them, and then they go out and get it done like that,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s great. That’s taking advantage of your opportunity, which is kind of something I’ve been saying all year. That’s a huge goal for us from some new additions. Now they get a chance to play some playoff hockey, both those guys.”
Washington could need that same kind of scoring depth if it plays this Carolina team again in just two weeks. This late-season home-and-home between the Capitals and the Hurricanes could be a first-round playoff series preview, assuming Washington maintains first place in the Metro and the Hurricanes don’t drop out of the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card spot. The Capitals won Tuesday’s meeting, 4-1, with captain Alex Ovechkin scoring his 49th goal in the third period to break open what had been a 1-1 tie. Fans in Washington chanted, “We want 50,” to which Ovechkin later responded, “Yeah, next game.”
“I’m sick of seeing him hit milestones, to be honest with you,” joked Hurricanes captain Justin Williams, a former teammate of Ovechkin’s with the Capitals, on Thursday morning. “Every time I’m there, it’s a different milestone. . . . He’s a good player, he scores a lot of goals, and we want to make sure he doesn’t get any tonight.”
Ovechkin was kept in check for the game, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying; in more than 22 minutes of ice time, he tallied four shots on goal, three attempts blocked and four misses and nearly scored on an empty net late.
Washington’s forward depth took a hit before the game even started, but the team’s supporting cast ultimately came through. T.J. Oshie, who has scored 23 goals, was “feeling under the weather” and was ruled out, Reirden said before the game. He became the third player to fall ill over the past week with a bug working its way through the Capitals’ locker room.
“You can look at last year’s team here,” Dowd said. “I wasn’t here, but they had contributions from the entire lineup, and that makes a big difference. It takes a lot of pressure off the top guys, and you end up winning games 3-1, 4-1, 5-1, instead of 1-0, 2-1. It takes a little bit off your goaltender. You have to have guys contribute, and the league’s changed so much now that fourth-line players are much different than they used to be. We’re expected to contribute.”
Just 4:31 into the game, Carolina’s Nino Niederreiter drove the net and Holtby came out to the edge of the crease to challenge him, but Niederreiter stayed with the play, scoring from below the goal line while down on the ice after his first attempt glanced off the post.
The Capitals needed just 42 seconds to answer that tally; on a rush into the Hurricanes’ zone 5:13 into the game, Brett Connolly curled around defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk before firing a shot over McElhinney’s glove.
“I was looking at my options,” Connolly said. “[Vrana] was taken away. He slid quite quickly, so I just kept it, and there wasn’t a lot of backcheckers coming, which was good, or else I might have got my head taken off. But it was good to get in the middle and get a good shot from a good area and just put it where I wanted. It was good to see it go in.”
The Hurricanes reclaimed the lead 12:30 into the second period, when fourth-line forward Warren Foegele sped into the Capitals’ zone, blowing past Jensen and then tucking the puck around Holtby. But for a second straight game, Washington owned the third period, ensuring a sweep of the season series. If they should meet again in the playoffs, that could give the Capitals just that much more confidence.
“They threw everything at us today,” Connolly said. “They definitely had a chance to get points. We’ll see who we play, but I think we’re pretty confident against any first-round opponent. We’re just going to worry about our business and keep building our game. We’ll see who we play in the first round, but we’re confident about our own game for sure.”