John Erskine is Caps' 'unsung hero' in clinching win

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Braden Holtby made 24 saves on Tuesday night. John Erskine made two.

“He’s our third goalie right now,” captain Alex Ovechkin said with a smile.

And, truth be told, those might’ve been the stops that saved the season for the Washington Capitals. In diving in front of a shot and swatting away the puck on the goal line, Erskine at least played a major role in the Southeast Division clincher over the Winnipeg Jets.

“It’s a big game and I think guys would do anything for a ‘W’ tonight,” Erskine said. “[Those are plays] that anybody would’ve done. I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time and kept the puck out.”

Erskine got third-star honors in the 5-3 victory, but that’s underselling his value Tuesday night and all season. The rugged defenseman has been a key piece to the Caps for much of the year, no matter how he has done it.

“We all know what Ersk brings,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “He started off the season scoring goals and putting points up and that’s not what he brings on a night-to-night basis. He brings that gritty style of hockey, very responsible, but he’s going to do anything to win a hockey game. He’s going to do anything to help. You expect that from him every night, I’m glad he’s on our side and not on the other.”

Holtby is, too. The Caps had an early 1-0 lead on Hendricks goal when, just a minute later, the Jets had an odd-man rush.

Holtby came out of his net just enough to open up space for Winnipeg’s Bryan Little, who had plenty of white to shoot at. Except Erskine threw his body at the shot.

“The puck went to the guy that was open there and it looked like Holtsy wasn’t going to be able to get across and I just flew across and tried to do the two-pad stack,” Erskine said. “I think I might’ve got like a little piece but then [John Carlson] came in and got it.”

Sacrificing the body is something the Caps know Erskine does well.

“This is what he’s been a big part of our team this year and he’s been doing a lot of good things, and blocking shots is one of his strengths in his game,” center Mathieu Perreault said. “He did a good job tonight on that for sure.”

But Erskine isn’t just a brawny 6-foot-4 defenseman who can clear opponents from the front of the net. And his heady play was evident late in the first period when a shot bounced up and off Holtby’s back.

The puck reached the goal line before Erskine swatted it away. It took video review, and the 32-year-old didn’t know if he batted it out before it crossed.

“I was 50/50. I had no idea,” Erskine said. “The puck was kind of on its side, so I couldn’t really tell.”

Replays upheld that Erskine did keep the puck out.

“If the puck goes in, it’s a different game, for sure,” Perreault said.

That’s in either case. Erskine saved two sure-fire goals that could’ve changed the complexion of the game and the Caps’ season.

“He’s kind of like our unsung hero,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “I don’t know if we have an award for that, but he’s always a guy that’s hitting, banging bodies and he’s playing good defensively and a hell of a save, too.”

Tuesday night served as validation for many people, including general manager George McPhee, coach Adam Oates and Ovechkin. Erskine enjoyed part of the spotlight along with Hendricks and Chimera, hard-working guys who don’t usually get a lot of accolades.

“It was a hard-working game and bang and crash,” Erskine said. “It feels good. I think everybody contributed tonight.”

Perhaps no one more so than Erskine, though Holtby pointed out that he has been making smart and important plays all season. Oates called Erskine a “force out there” and a physical guy the Caps need in their lineup.

“He’s a leader back here on the D corps for us,” defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “He might not wear a letter, but in the locker room everybody knows it and I think people are starting to see it, too.”

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