By the spring of 2011, it became the norm for the Washington Capitals to win the Southeast Division. Ho-hum, hang another banner at Verizon Center.
After four straight titles in the not-too-distant past, these Caps are two years removed from the last one. Two months ago, they would have gladly taken an opportunity like they had Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.
“Hell yeah, we would’ve,” defenseman Jack Hillen said.
The Caps wasted no time taking advantage of it, as they beat the Jets 5-3 to clinch the Southeast and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s Washington’s sixth straight playoff appearance and fifth division championship in that time.
“We did it, everybody pretty happy right now in locker room,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We make our first step and everybody proud of themselves, it’s nice feeling right now.”
It’s something that would have been difficult to envision at several points earlier this season. The Caps started 2-8-1 and were at the bottom of the NHL standings.
Even as recently as mid-March after a loss at the Pittsburgh Penguins, they were 14th in the East and looked far more destined for a high lottery pick in the draft than a trip to the playoffs. But starting with back-to-back victories in Winnipeg, the Caps went 14-2-1 to sew up the division.
“We had a lousy start, and I don’t think many of us thought we would come this far,” coach Adam Oates said. “But we obviously put some really good hockey together and the guys have grown.”“
The Caps made up a division deficit that was 10 points to the Carolina Hurricanes on March 13 and nine to the Jets as recently as March 20. On April 23, they put the Southeast out of reach and dealt a serious blow to the Jets’ attempt to make the playoffs.
“It’s not the feather that we want to have at the end of the year, that’s for sure,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “We did what we set out to do in the regular season, and now we’ve got to continue on.”
While Washington reeled off an eight-game winning streak along the way that got it into first place April 4, domination of Winnipeg paved the way to home-ice advantage in the first round.
That continued Tuesday night.
Whatever the reason, the Caps showed early that they were clearly the better team. The first four shifts of the game they tilted the ice toward Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.
It was the opposite of what defenseman Mike Green expected when he said of the Jets: “We’ve got to make sure that we match their push.” Instead, the Caps pushed, took an early lead on Matt Hendricks’ goal 3:12 in and kept up the pressure.