One last time.
The Washington Capitals are the last Southeast Division champion, capturing that title for the seventh time by defeating the Winnipeg Jets, 5-3, last night.
This one was for the grinders and the less renowned for the Caps. If you look at the score sheet, it is sprinkled with names you do not see there often. Matt Hendricks, John Erskine, Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault, Jack Hillen. It was a night when everyone stepped up.
It started with Hendricks barely three minutes into the game. And what an effort it was. First, Hendricks was knocked to the ice at the Jets’ blue line by Chris Thorburn as he was dumping the puck to the corner. He got up, pursued the puck to the corner where Jay Beagle and Ron Hainsey were battling over it. Hendricks beat Antti Miettinen to the loose puck, circled out, took a couple of steps down the goal line, and shot the puck off the shoulder of goalie Ondrej Pavelec and in for the game’s first goal.
The second goal was prettier. Mathieu Perreault beat Hainsey to the puck below the Winnipeg goal line to Pavelec’ left and sent it across to Jason Chimera in the opposite corner. Chimera fed it back to Perreault and headed to the front of the net. Perreault then set up behind Pavelec and surveyed the situation briefly. With Winnipeg’s defense keeping their eyes on Perreault, the Capital forward slid the puck in front to Chimera, whose first whack at the puck was stopped by Pavelec. His second one was not, though. Chimera chipped it over Pavelec’ right pad, and the Caps had a 2-0 lead 17:53 into the game.
The lead proved once more to be the most dangerous one in hockey, though, as the Jets tied the game in the second period. Evander Kane scored 16 seconds in when he wrong-footed a wrist shot using John Erskine as a screen and beat goalie Braden Holtby on the blocker side. Blake Wheeler scored at 14:11 when Nik Antropov held the puck in along the right wing boards at the Capitals’ blue line and fed Wheeler in the low slot all alone on Holtby. Wheeler wasted no time one-timing the puck in to tie the game.
The Caps got their lead back just 37 seconds later. Nicklas Backstrom got it started when at the Winnipeg blue line he fed the puck over to Alex Ovechkin on the right wing. Ovechkin skated in, avoided the annoyance of Grant Clitsome, and from the low right wing circle fed the puck in front where Backstrom was headed. Clitsome could not interrupt the pass with his outstretched stick, and Hainsey (who seemed to be in close proximity to a lot of misfortune for the Jets on this evening) from his knees saw the puck slide through his legs as he was trying to sweep it away from harm. The puck found its way to Backstrom’s stick, and the Caps’ center redirected it past Pavelec to make it 3-2 at 14:48.
The two-goal lead was restored off a play that broke down in front of Pavelec. It started when Mathieu Perreault skated across the Winnipeg blue line and left the puck for Eric Fehr trailing the play. Fehr had his stick lifted by Alexander Burmistrov and never got possession. Jack Hillen jumped up, though, and ripped a shot toward the Jet’s net. A clot of bodies fought there for the puck, and it was Perreault, digging for the biscuit like it was the last one in the basket at Sunday dinner, who sent it into the back of the Winnipeg net at 17:34 of the second period.
Nik Antropov gave Caps fans a scare when he halved the Washington lead 11:50 into the third period, wristing a laser top corner over Braden Holtby’s blocker. But that was as close as Winnipeg would get – something of a microcosm of their late season push. Alex Ovechkin added an empty net goal with 29 seconds left to drive a stake through the Jets’ comeback attempt with the 5-3 win and send the Caps into the post-season, as unlikely as that prospect might have seemed six weeks ago.
-- Matt Hendricks’ goal broke a 25-game drought without one. Chimera’s was just his second in 17 games.
-- Backstrom’s assist give him 40 on the year and leaves him in third place in helpers, just two behind Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis. With a goal added to it, he is 5-19-24 in his last 17 games.
-- Ovechkin’s goal and assist lengthened his lead in the Maurice Richard Trophy race (he now has a three-goal lead on Steven Stamkos) and allowed him to close to within three points of the league lead in overall scoring. His 22 assists has him tied for tenth among RIGHT wingers in the NHL, even though the league has him in ninth place among left wingers. He is 22-11-33 in his last 21 games (an 86-43-129 scoring pace over 82 games).
-- John Erskine can head down to the International Brotherhood of Goaltenders and Netminders and pick up his union card. The Caps might have headed into the first intermission tied at two goals apiece if not for his diving save of a Bryan Little shot from point-blank range in the game’s fifth minute with goalie Braden Holtby out of position to make the save. He earned his second “save” of the period in the 14th minute of the period when Aaron Gagnon’s shot from the left wing boards was redirected, hit Braden Holtby in the pads, flipped over his shoulder, hit him right in the “7” on the back of his jersey, and dropped into the blue paint behind him. The puck bounced toward the goal line, but Erskine swooped in and swept the puck off the goal line and out of harm’s way. A review confirmed the call as “no goal.”
-- For Erskine it was quite a night in other respects. He had seven of the 17 blocked shots the Caps recorded and tied for the team lead in hits. The assist on the Backstrom goal was a cherry on top of the sundae. We think he should have been the game’s first star.
-- Mathieu Perreault is quietly cobbling together a solid finishing kick to the season. It is not that his goal or point totals are out of sight – he is 1-4-5 in his last eight games – but is it that timely scoring coupled with addressing what might have been his weaknesses in the other end that is helping his cause (he is plus-five over those same eight games and has had only one “minus” game in his last nine contests).
-- Perreault also had something the Jets had no answer for – his ability to set up behind the Winnipeg net seemed to befuddle the Jets in terms of whether to challenge him or defend the passes he might make from that perch. Whatever it was they did, it did not work.
-- Marcus Johansson...buddy. No shots on goal? You were the only Cap not to record one, but hey, there was the assist on the Ovechkin goal, so all is good.
-- Fourteen different Capitals recorded hits. We are not sure if that was a product of the “playoff” nature of the game or the official scorer getting caught up in the moment.
-- Seems that the only way there is to stop the Caps power play is for them not to have any. Well…one. And that didn’t come until the third period.
-- Give Ondrej Pavelec credit for being a warrior, but he was dealt a bad hand. Playing the second game of a back-to-back set, he has struggled with the second of those games this year. And one of the keys we noted was for the Caps to “floor it” early. They did. Four goals on their first 28 shots in the opening 37:34 of the game.
-- Does anyone remember the "Atlanta Thrashers?"
-- Does anyone remember the "Atlanta Thrashers?"
In the end… One might be a bit ambivalent about the Caps this morning. On the one hand, this was not just another Southeast Division title. They earned this one the hard way, going 24-10-1 over a 35-game stretch to climb from last in the conference to the top spot in the division. That is to their credit. On the other hand, they have been here before, and in that respect the divisional title is an end to the Southeast Division race, but only a beginning in terms of what it is they are seeking to accomplish. Because in the cold light of morning after the win, they still have a lot of work to do.
But it sure was nice, though, wasn’t it?