There was no doubt the Capitals needed a pair of wins this weekend at home to keep their fading Stanley Cup playoff chances alive.
With a difficult trip to California looming this week, they were out of options. Things remain dicey for a team that has qualified for the postseason six years in a row. But Sunday’s 4-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center at least keeps hope alive.
Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward recorded their 20th goals of the season and Jason Chimera added another. A 3-0 first period lead held up, though there were some tense moments after the Maple Leafs cut the advantage to one midway through the second period.
Again, it wasn’t a perfect effort. But at this time of year that’s irrelevant. The Caps needed the standings points and got them with wins over Toronto on Sunday and Vancouver on Friday.
“Still a few things we’d like to clean up – letting teams back into the game,” Brouwer said. “We did a good job of holding them off, especially when they had a few [power plays] late in the second period. We kept our composure for once rather than panicking.”
Indeed, the Maple Leafs were held to just seven shots in the third period as Washington maintained that 3-2 lead. In the final minute, as a Brouwer shot rolled towards an empty net and what would be his 20th goal of the season, center Nicklas Backstrom tracked the puck the entire way down ice.
But instead of tapping it home as it slowed, Backstrom chose to let the puck’s momentum carry it across the goal line. Brouwer had his second goal of the night and his 20th of the year and Backstrom earned praise from his teammates.
“That’s the best, most unselfish play I’ve ever seen in my entire hockey career,” defenseman Karl Alzner said.
Brouwer certainly appreciated it. He and his teammates ragged on Jason Chimera, whose skate deflected in the first goal. That would have been No. 20 for Ward, who slapped at the puck from his back side. A sheepish Chimera said he felt better when Ward actually got No. 20 at 8:44 of the first period on the power play. That made it 3-0 Washington and left it in control of the contest early.
“We want to contribute five-on-five. First, we want to do that,” Ward said. “Obviously, special teams is huge nowadays, but you’re not going to be on the power play all the time. You’ve got to establish a good five-on-five game and get the puck in deep.”
That line of Ward, Chimera and center Eric Fehr has been a consistent force all season. The Caps managed to score four goals despite coach Adam Oates shifting his top lines around. Star winger Alex Ovechkin managed just one shot on goal. He and left wing Marcus Johansson skated much of the second half of the game with fourth-line forward Jay Beagle at center.
“They get overshadowed because of the names that we have on our team,” Brouwer said of his team’s third line. “Night in and night out, I think they’re our most consistent line and that’s why they stick together. They are unsung for us.”
And now the Caps (32-27-10, 74 points) have set themselves up for a difficult road trip to California, where they will play Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose – three of the NHL’s top eight teams. That’s a brutal stretch and Brouwer said his team must find a way to win two of those games to keep the pressure on its Eastern Conference rivals.
But they received help on Sunday when the New York Rangers (36-29-4, 76 points) lost to San Jose. That left Washington just two points out of the final wild-card spot. It was a far better place than where it began the weekend, however. With just 13 games remaining, that’s all the Caps can ask.
“You’ve got to win them all,” Oates said. “We haven’t played [the Kings] yet. But we played Anaheim very well here. We could’ve won that game and San Jose the same thing. I know they’re better than us in the standings, but you’ve got to have the attitude that you’re going to beat them.”