Steve Oleksy didn't even see the hit, but he tried to get to Chris Neil. The Ottawa Senators agitator decked Jason Chimera from behind and was heading to the penalty box, but that didn't seem like enough.
All Thursday night Washington Capitals players exchanged words and shoves with Neil, who got under their skin during a 2-1 overtime loss to the Senators.
“He hit a guy from behind, a couple dirty things,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “He's a guy that you try to get under his skin a little bit and sometimes you go a little bit too far trying to get him to take one. I don't know. I don't think he's as bad as some of the guys, but he got our attention tonight.”
Perhaps too much, as the Caps looked off their game. It didn't help that they had nothing to play for after already clinching the Southeast Division and that Ottawa needed (and got) a victory to get into the playoffs.
But there were more than a few post-whistle skirmishes. “Probably a little bit more than we'd like,” coach Adam Oates said. From Neil down the lineup, the Senators gave the Caps a taste of what a playoff series against them would look like.
“I think that's kind of playoff hockey: low-scoring, tight-checking, always little things going on after the whistle, little bumps,” said big defenseman John Erskine, who was in Neil's face often.
That the Caps lost for just the second time in 12 games, each time to the Senators, doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of the regular season. Washington had nothing to play for, and Oates said of the Senators: “We knew that they'd be a desperate team and trying to create a playoff atmosphere and jack it up.”
But how the Senators jacked it up should be a concern for the Caps, who lost on a power-play goal created by Mike Ribeiro's second penalty of the third period. Led by Neil, Ottawa likes to take some liberties after and between the whistles.
“When you're battling around the front of the net and stuff, I think if they're giving you extra shots, you've got to kind of fight back to a certain point where you're retaliating,” Erskine said.
The Caps gave a few shots back, like when defenseman Steve Oleksy shoved Jakob Silfverberg in the face in the third period. Neil got his shots in, too.
“I played against him in junior for a year or two and in the minors and here,” Erskine said. “I know what he's all about. He just plays hard and you've got to be careful you just don't retaliate with him.”
It's a difficult line to toe, for the Caps or whichever team draws the Senators in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals next week. How much is too much focus on Neil, who makes a habit of seeking out hits wherever he can get them.
“He's one of those players that he's looking to finish his check every time and you've got to be aware of him,” Oleksy said. “Even if you already got rid of the puck, he's coming and you've got to do what you can to try to avoid it and do your best to protect yourself in those situations.”
Tough guy Aaron Volpatti called Neil one of those guys “that you've got to know when they're on the ice.”
It's hard to forget Neil when he's making an impact like Thursday night, even if Erskine downplayed it as the agitator “playing hard.”
More to the point, he and the Senators made it hard for the Caps to concentrate on hockey.
“I think we were just getting frustrated by kind of the way that things were going for us, so that's what you saw,” Alzner said.
Getting outshot 23-4 in the third period of an essentially meaningless game isn't great but not cause for alarm. Losing on a point shot from ex-Washington defenseman Sergei Gonchar in overtime isn't, either.
But Neil and the Senators planted seeds in the minds of Caps players of what next week might be like.
“Obviously we don't really like each other; it's not really a secret,” Volpatti said. “It would make for a good series. I don't think it's going to change our mindset.”
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