- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Capitals moved a step closer to clinching their third straight Southeast Division title Wednesday night at Verizon Center, as Tomas Fleischmann’s goal with 1:40 left in overtime gave Washington a 4-3 win over Carolina. The victory means Washington might have a playoff spot locked up as soon as tomorrow night — with still a month left to play in the regular season.

With the win, the Caps picked up their 99th point of the season with 15 games still to play, and have eliminated all but Atlanta from the divisional race. But even if the Thrashers run the table and win out their remaining 17 games, they still can only reach the 100-point mark on the campaign — with Washington holding the tiebreaker — meaning any combination of a single Washington point or an Atlanta loss would earn Washington a top-three seed in the postseason.

Washington also holds a 15-point edge on Pittsburgh in the race for the Eastern Conference’s top seed, not to mention a six-point lead on Chicago and San Jose for the race for the President’s Trophy, which goes to the team with the most points in the regular season.

Facing a Hurricanes team that had won seven of their last eight games heading into the contest and desperate to gain ground in the playoff chase despite a horrible start to the season, the Caps got quite a battle from the last team to hand them a regulation loss on home ice.

But after Carolina rallied to erase two Washington leads — the second straight game the Caps have coughed up a two-goal lead — the Capitals were able to take control of the overtime session and win the third of four games on their current homestand (3-0-1), and now have recorded points in 21 of their last 22 games (18-1-3).

Mike Green also added a pair of goals for Washington, although he had an up-and-down night for the Caps, having a costly turnover that led to a Tuomo Ruutu goal in the second period that tied the game in the second period.

“He had two goals and a beautiful assist,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said of his play afterwards. “But the assist was to the other team.”

Alexander Semin put the Caps on the board first, taking a nice bounce pass from Brendan Morrison off the dasher boards and then breaking in on Hurricanes goaltender Manny Legace and depositing a backhand past the netminder with just 2:24 gone in the contest for an early 1-0 Washington lead.

David Steckel nearly made it 2-0 just :23 later, but Legace came up with a nice stop in front of his cage on a similar move to Semin’s goal.

At the other end, Theodore came up with a nice save on a Ray Whitney chance in front with five minutes gone in the game, as Whitney snuck past the Washington defensemen but was denied by the netminder.

Shortly after, Tomas Fleischmann put the ‘Canes on the power play, as he was called for a trip at the 5:57 mark. However, unlike Monday’s dismal 0-for-2 penalty-killing performance agains the Stars, the Capitals were able to kill off the penalty without even allowing a shot on goal.

After the successful kill, Nicklas Backstrom had a good chance to deposit a rebound of an Alexander Ovechkin drive, but couldn’t quite hit the cage, and shortly after, David Steckel was called for holding for Carolina’s second straight power play. But, after a nice pair of efforts by Brooks Laich and Semin on the penalty-kill, Carolina’s Sergei Samsonov took a hooking penalty to end the second Hurricanes power play early.

After the Samsonov penalty expired, the Caps nearly cashed in on a bad Hurricanes turnover, as Eric Belanger turned on a poor clearing attempt and send it on net, and Laich had a chance to put in a rebound, but Legace came up with a sparkling glove save with just under four minutes left in the frame.

After Alexandre Picard was whistled for a penalty to put the Caps up a man, the Canes’ aggressive penalty killers nearly yielded a shorthanded goal. Brandon Sutter broke in on Theodore and was tripped up by Mike Green, earning a penalty shot with 2:19 left to play in the period. Sutter broke in and tried to fake out the Caps netminder, but Theodore held his ground and stopped Sutter’s shot.

The save proved to be a big one, as on the ensuing shift, the Capitals moved up ice and Green redeemed himself for his infraction by taking a Backstrom pass from the goal line and moving into the face-off circle and beating Legace with 2:01 to play.

However, Washington couldn’t take advantage of their tally and their two-goal cushion, as they yielded a quick one on the ensuing shift.

The Canes cut the lead back to one just :18 later, as after Theodore couldn’t control a Tom Kostopoulous shot, Patrick Dwyer knocked it in to get the Hurricanes on the boards before the period ended.

The Caps came out of the locker room quickly, as Laich had two good chances to up the Caps lead, and drew a penalty breaking towards the net just :48 into the period. Washington put some good chances on Legace, but he was able to hold his ground after an extended flurry.

However, it was Carolina that lit the lamp first in the second, as the ‘Canes were able to covert on a chance in Washington’s end, as Chad Larose intercepted a Green clearing attempt through the middle, and fed Tuomo Ruutu for the equalizer with 11:17 left in the frame.

“They forechecked like crazy and I felt like … we had to work extra hard because we really didn’t have time to make a play,” Green said afterwards. “Any time it’s like that, even when we do it against other teams, we cause problems and it seemed tonight they were doing it against us.”

“His idea was right, but he was just being too casual and trying to finesse the puck in there. Everything that is passed has to be a hard pass,” Boudreau said afterwards. “It has to be — that’s the only way it works.”

Ovechkin had a nice chance to put the Caps back in front a minute later, but was hauled down while breaking in and Picard’s penalty gave Washington a power play just before the halfway mark of the period.

With the extra man, Green was able to cash in for his second goal of the night and 17th on the year, collecting a rebound of a Laich stuff attempt and then he fired it past Legace with 8:58 left in the period.

“I think we had a lot of opportunities to score, especially on the power play,” Backstrom said afterwards. “I mean, it’s a tight game, and they are a good team and [Legace] played [well]. The only [thing] we can do is keep working and we’re going to get better, I think.”

However, a penalty just 2:59 after the Green tally opened the door for Carolina to tie up the game again. Scott Walker, in his first game against his former team since being acquired a week ago, took a penalty and on the ensuing power-play, Jussi Jokinen fired a shot past Theodore to square the score with 4:57 left.

Carolina got another power-play before the period was out, as Joe Corvo took an interference minor in the offensive zone with just :44 left in the second, and carried over into the third, but the Caps were able to kill off the penalty.

But Semin put the Hurricanes back on the power-play with a slashing infraction 3:17 into the third, but Steckel and Backstrom nearly took advantage of a Legace blunder behind his net to pop in a short-handed tally. Thanks to another good penalty-killing effort, the Caps suffered no damage from the penalty.

After a relatively wide-open first two periods, both teams tightened up a bit early in the third, as Carolina, looking to pick up points on eighth-place Boston for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, wanted to slow down the up-tempo Caps and get at least a point out of their trip to D.C.

But as the period progressed, the ‘Canes began to open up the game again and looking for the go-ahead goal.

Theodore came up big on a break by Whitney with eight minutes left in regulation to preserve the tie. Then, the visitors took a few more chances — and got some good scoring opportunities as a result, with the best coming with five minutes left when Eric Staal broke in on a 2-on-1 and had a good chance to give Carolina its first lead, but he couldn’t connect.

The Caps got a 2-on-1 of their own, but Belanger’s centering feed was off-target and Washington missed their best chance late for a go-ahead goal.

Washington had some good chances in regulation’s final minute, but the game headed for overtime, the 15th straight game the Caps have picked up at least a point at home (14-0-1) — dating back to the team’s last regulation loss, which came on Hurricanes’ last visit to Washington on Dec. 28, 2009.

Ovechkin nearly put a puck in a minute into the extra session, but couldn’t connect and play continued.

However, it was who Tomas Fleischmann ended the game on a high note for Washington, taking a pass from Belanger to earn Washington’s 45th win of the season with 1:40 left in overtime.

“I took the rebound from Staal on the side of the net and I had [Joe Corvo] coming up with me and we had another guy coming off the bench, so I was just trying to be patient and buy him some time to come up and make it a 3-on-2 and he opened up and he made a great shot,” Belanger told the press afterwards.

By the time Washington plays its next game Friday against Tampa Bay, the team could already have clinched the division, depending on Atlanta’s game against Columbus Thursday. Regardless, a win against the Lightning will clinch the team’s third straight Southeast Division crown, with a top-three seed that goes with it. The team then heads west to open a four-game road trip Sunday afternoon in Chicago in a nationally-televised contest against the Blackhawks.

With the playoff berth nearly theirs, however, Boudreau has to keep his team going through 15 more regular-season games.

“The playoffs don’t start ‘til April [15th],” he said. “As long as we can, and I don’t like doing it either, we’ll keep rotating guys in and out of the lineup to keep them fresh and sharp. The players don’t like it, but they understand it. They have the common goal.”

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