With only two games before the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Washington Capitals rested a few of their veteran regulars Wednesday night during their final regular season game at Verizon Center. It didn’t handcuff them against the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
Washington captured a relatively easy 5-2 win despite the absence of Jason Arnott, Scott Hannan and Alexander Semin (who is tending to nagging injuries). The Capitals won despite not looking sharp early on and despite being heavily outshot by the Florida Panthers, who are mired in their longest winless streak since 2005.
Washington tallied a pair of power-play goals and received contributions on the score sheet from nine players to earn its fourth straight win and improve to 7-1-1 in its past nine games.
The victory gives the Capitals (107 points) a four-point advantage over the Philadelphia Flyers, who were inactive Wednesday, for first place in the Eastern Conference. Washington’s magic number to clinch the top seed in the East for a second straight season is one point, whether won by the Capitals or not picked up by the Flyers in their two remaining games.
While Washington has repeatedly said it’s not focused on that No. 1 spot, that doesn’t mean the players want to let it slip away now.
“That is definitely one of the long-term goals we set out at the beginning of the season,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “To be this close with 60 minutes of hockey left, it’s worth going for.”
Asked whether he would consider resting some of Washington’s other players in the regular season finale in South Florida against the same Panthers, Coach Bruce Boudreau didn’t want to look too far into the future just yet.
“I still think we have to wait to see what’s at stake on Saturday before we start taking anything for granted,” Boudreau said. “I’m watching the scoreboards to see what’s going on; hopefully get that game over with and focus at what’s ahead of that.”
Goaltender Semyon Varlamov made 31 saves in his first start in four games, and just his third appearance in the past seven contests. Varlamov weathered a deluge early on as the Panthers registered 18 shots on goal in the first period. Boudreau credited Varlamov with keeping the Capitals in the contest after a start where he said “we weren’t very good.”
Although Florida had a significant edge in shots and scoring chances for the majority of the game, it couldn’t dent the Capitals’ armor. Meanwhile, all Washington needed to put pucks behind Scott Clemmensen (20 saves) was an occasional feed in front of the net, beginning less than two minutes into the contest.
On an early power play, Mike Knuble took a sharp feed from Brooks Laich for a one-timer to give Washington a 1-0 lead just 1 minute 20 seconds into the contest. It was the veteran right wing’s fourth goal in the past four games and set a tone of what was to come.
The Capitals simply went to the crease whenever they gained possession in the offensive zone and knocked home three goals on their first 11 shots.
Florida (70 points), which is winless in nine straight games, gave Varlamov plenty of work after Knuble’s goal, though. Those early flurries wouldn’t prevent the Capitals from taking a 2-0 lead on another power-play goal, this time a tap-in by Jason Chimera in front off a pass by Nicklas Backstrom with 36.2 seconds remaining in the first period. In the middle period, Sean Collins scored his second NHL goal and Hendricks added his ninth tally of the season to give Washington a 4-0 lead.
The Panthers added a pair of goals, by David Booth and Mike Santorelli, with less than seven minutes left in regulation but it was of little consequence. Alex Ovechkin potted one into an empty net for the final score.
Even though the Capitals were pleased to pull closer to the top spot in the East, there wasn’t any sense of over-excitement about this particular win or the manner in which it came.
“We didn’t play the way we wanted to,” Chimera said. “Obviously in the first period we were lucky to be up 2-0 — Varly played very good for us. . . . We got away with one where we didn’t play that good, but we’ve got to win and play a whole lot better the next game against them because they played really hard.”
Capitals note: Before the game, Boudreau said the Capitals don’t expect defenseman Dennis Wideman to play in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Wideman suffered a leg hematoma and compartment syndrome when he was hit by Carolina’s Tuomo Ruuto on March 29. There is no timetable for Wideman’s return.
“We don’t know,” Boudreau said. “It’s one of those things that, again, this time next week we’ll know a lot more than we know now, but it depends on how his rehab goes and how quick he takes to it.”