They still have to wait another 24 days before their first chance at the defending champs, but the Washington Capitals have made their case for being the best team in the Eastern Conference -- at least for this week.
Three days after dispatching the Northeast Division-leading Buffalo Sabres, the Caps throttled the top club in the Atlantic Division, the New Jersey Devils, 4-1 Saturday night at Verizon Center behind three-point nights from Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.
The Caps won for the third straight game with their third-string goalie in net. Rookie Michal Neuvirth made 29 saves, but Washington put forth an offensive assault that even one of the greatest goalies in NHL history was powerless to prevent.
The Caps nudged ahead of the Devils for the top spot in the NHL with 54 points. New Jersey defeated Washington in the first three meetings of the season and still has two games in hand on the Caps, but the home team dominated this contest almost from the outset.
Ovechkin put the Caps out in front with a wicked wrist shot at 4:09 of the opening period. Backstrom won a faceoff to the right of New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur back to Ovechkin, and the netminder never saw the shot through traffic.
It was Ovechkins 25th tally of the season, which is one behind New Yorks Marian Gaborik for the league lead. Ovechkin also notched the first marker in a contest nine times this season, which is the most in the NHL.
The assist for Backstrom was also his 200th career point in 202 games. Backstrom became one of 11 players to record 200 points since the start of the 2007-08 season.
Matt Bradley made it a 2-0 advantage. David Steckel got him the puck near the top of the circles, and Bradleys stick was disturbed by defenseman Mike Mottau. The result was a knuckling puck that would have traveled over the crossbar, but Brodeur tried to nab it with his glove and ended up deflecting it into his own net at 13:54.
New Jerseys Rod Pelley got one back for the Devils before the end of period. The puck ended up on Pelleys stick after arching high in the air in the high slot.
Backstrom collected point No. 201 midway through the second period. Alexander Semin tapped the puck to Backstrom at the inside of the left circle and the Swedish center roofed a backhanded shot for his 15th goal of the season at 9:52.
Mike Green pushed the lead to three goals early in the final period. He snapped a shot from just inside the top of the right circle into the top right corner for his eighth of the season and fifth in 10 games.
Note -- A team official confirmed Alexander Semin agreed to a one-year contract extension for the 2010-11 season. Semin is in the final season of a two-year, $9.2 million contract and would have been a restricted free agent July 1. Semin will be an unrestricted free agent after next year.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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