Eleven weeks ago when the Washington Capitals sat adrift as the worst team in the NHL, few believed that this squad with its new coach and new system could find a way to pull itself together and reach the playoffs.
On Tuesday night, the Capitals demonstrated the product of months of perseverance and hard-earned progress to complete a meteoric rise up the standings. Washington clinched their fifth Southeast Division title in the past six years and their sixth consecutive postseason berth with a 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets at Verizon Center.
“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.
Braden Holtby stopped the initial chance on the right side by Andrew Ladd on Winnipeg’s odd-man rush, but the rebound popped out and was sent over to Bryan Little on the left side. With the 23-year-old netminder scrambling to recover, Erskine dove in front of Little’s shot toward the open cage preventing what seemed like a sure goal. Much later in the period, with 13:51 gone, Erskine helped bail out his goaltender and teammates once more.
Jets forward Aaron Gagnon deflected a shot in front that went off Holtby’s pads and then over his head. The puck hit the blue paint and fluttered back up in the air dangerously close to crossing the goal line when Erskine reached in and swatted the puck out of the open net. The play was reviewed but there wasn’t conclusive evidence to overturn the ruling on the ice that it wasn’t a goal.
“I saw it go up off Holtsy and it looked like it was going in behind him,” Erskine said. “I just tried to get behind him and get my stick there and tip the puck out.”
Washington continued to push the pace and with 2:07 remaining in the opening period, Chimera scored his third goal of the season on his own rebound for a 2-0 advantage after a feed from behind the net by Perreault.
Playing to keep their postseason hopes afloat, the Jets responded quickly at the start of the second period when Evander Kane cut the Capitals’ lead to 2-1 just 16 seconds in. Unlike the team that started the season, Washington didn’t reel in the face of adversity and instead continued to press. Even after Jets forward Blake Wheeler tied the game at 2-2 with 14:11 gone in the middle period, the Capitals responded rapidly.
“You’ve just got to stick with the game plan,” Backstrom said. “They tied the game there in the second period, but we came back, we worked harder and then we scored two really big goals there in the second period.”
Thirty-seven seconds later, the building began rocking once more as the Capitals regained the lead. On an odd-man break up ice, Backstrom deflected a shot-pass by Ovechkin for a critical 3-2 edge. A little less than three minutes later, the third line cashed to provide Washington a cushion. Perreault fought for a loose puck in front and chipped it over Pavelec for a 4-2 lead.
Nik Antropov scored with just more than eight minutes remaining in regulation to cut Washington’s advantage to 4-3, but the home team kept working. The Capitals killed off a late penalty to Perreault for high-sticking and didn’t allow Winnipeg a single shot on goal during the advantage.
From the conclusion of the penalty kill to the end of regulation the home crowd recognized not only the successful dismissal of a penalty but how far this team had come in the past three months. The players want to make sure they go further, though.
“Obviously it was our goal,” Holtby said of winning the Southeast. “Just took a little bit of a rough path to get there. But it’s one step. Now we move on. Focus on the playoffs and what we have to do there.”