In a game featuring a team that had already locked up the top seed in the NHL and one whose offseason begins Monday, the biggest question at Verizon Center Friday night was if Alexander Ovechkin was going to make a move towards winning a pair of individual honors.
Ovechkin came into Friday night’s game trailing Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby by a goal in the race for the ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy, going to the league’s top goal-getter, and trailing Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin by two points in the race for Art Ross Trophy for the overall points title.
Washington’s captain didn’t disappoint the sellout crowd at Verizon Center, taking a feed from Alexander Semin with 10:11 left in regulation and firing it past Atlanta netminder Ondrej Pavelec for his 50th goal of the season, his second tally of the night and third point of the evening, and giving him a slim lead in both races.
It is Ovechkin’s fourth 50-goal season in five NHL seasons, and proved to be the game-winner as the Capitals reached the 120-point mark on the season with a 5-2 win over the Thrashers.
“Well it’s a pretty big number, especially when you miss a couple games to suspension and get injured,” Ovechkin said afterwards. “You always want to score 50 goals, but sometimes you don’t have luck.”
Nicklas Backstrom also hit a milestone on the goal, as the Swede had two goals and an assist on the evening to pass the 100-point mark on the campaign with 101 total.
“When I came here at 5 o’clock, [Ovechkin] said to me, ‘Hey [Backstrom] are we going to score tonight?’” Backstrom said. “[And I said] ‘Yeah, why not?’ So it was kind of funny. … So we made some good plays.”
Unlike last week’s tight 2-1 win between these two teams, with the Thrashers eliminated from playoff contention and the Capitals securing the NHL’s best record, the clubs were content at generating a ton of scoring chances, with Washington putting 47 shots on net and yielding 31 against.
Ovechkin and the Caps were presented the Presidents’ Trophy before the game after clinching the league’s top regular-season record, but the Caps’ captain seemingly was reluctant to even take a picture with the award given to the NHL’s best regular-season team, and wouldn’t lay a finger on the the hardware.
When asked afterwards if it was due to superstition, Ovechkin said no.
“No, we’ll just wait when bigger things come,” he said.
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau was a bit more succinct than his team’s captain.
“It’s not [the trophy] we want,” he said.
With not a lot riding on the game other than Ovechkin’s stats and Backstrom’s milestone, the two teams started the game out with a loose, wide-open style, with not a lot of hitting going on but the two teams content to trade chances — and the Caps looking to get Ovechkin on the scoresheet.
Ovechkin got his first point of the night with 5:16 left in the first, as after missing on a shot on Pavelec, the rebound squirted over to Backstrom, who backhanded the puck in the net for a 1-0 lead. The goal gave Backstrom his 99th point of the campaign, and also brought Ovechkin just one point back of Sedin.
The Caps’ star nearly had another helper with just under eight minutes gone in the second period, as Eric Fehr couldn’t quite get a shot off a nice Ovechkin shot past Pavelec, and the score remained 1-0 Washington.
However, Atlanta got on the board with 8:45 left in the second when Evgeny Artyukhin’s centering feed went off Brendan Morrison’s skate and past Theodore to tie up the game.
The Thrashers then got a chance short-handed chance with Eric Boulton in the box, as Clarke MacArthur broke in alone after stealing the puck from Ovechkin at the Atlanta blue line and beating Theodore with 6:53 left in the period to give the Thrashers a 2-1 lead.
However, less than three minutes later, Ovechkin made up for his giveaway by taking a Semin feed and blasting the puck in the net with 3:56 left in the period, giving him his 49th of the campaign and pulling him into a tie with Crosby atop the NHL’s leaderboard and Sedin in points.
“He hates making the mistakes that cause goals,” Boudreau said. “I heard him between periods apologizing to [Theodore]. He knew he made a mistake and he went out and tried a little harder.”
Washington got a 5-on-3 in the third, with Johnny Oduya and Jim Slater in the box, giving the Caps a two-man advantage for :44 and a chance to reclaim the lead. The team fed Ovechkin several times during the power-play, but he couldn’t get on the board.
But Ovechkin did get his fourth 50-goal season with 10:11 left in the period, taking a pass from Semin and firing a shot past Pavelec. While Crosby briefly was credited with his 50th goal during Pittsburgh’s win over the Islanders Thursday night before the scoring was changed and the Penguins’ captain went back down to 49 goals, Ovechkin becomes the first player officially to hit the milestone this season.
On the play, Backstrom also recorded his first 100-point season of his career with the secondary assist.
“I’m just really proud of [Backstrom],” Boudreau said. “He’s such a great young man. You like to see great people succeed. I’m sitting there thinking ‘[Backstrom] just got his hundredth and [Ovechkin] just got his 50th, who’s picking up the puck?’ It shows that [Backstrom’s] one of the elite players in the league and he does it every night. I think that’s his third game in a row with three points. He’s a good player.”
Washington’s Jason Chimera then put the game away for Washington, scoring with 7:44 left in regulation by taking a feed and firing it just under the crossbar.
Just :49 later, Backstrom got his second goal of the night, taking the rebound of a Semin shot and beating Pavelec for a 5-2 lead.
Afterwards, in the locker room, Backstrom and Ovechkin were presented with the single puck that gave Ovechkin his 50th goal and Backstrom his 100th assist.
When asked how they were going to share the souvenir, Ovechkin joked, “We’re going to split it. I don’t know yet.”
The win was Washington’s franchise-record 54th of the season, and the Capitals become only the third team since the 1977-78 Canadiens to record 120 points in a regular season, with the 1995-96 and 2005-06 Red Wings the other two teams to the mark. They also are the first non-Original Six team to achieve that mark as well.
The Capitals also sweep the six-game season series from the Thrashers, building up a 39-point edge in the Southeast Division standings by having nearly one-third more points than the second-place club.
Washington wraps up the regular-season schedule Sunday when the Bruins pay a visit in a nationally-televised contest. With just two days left in the season, Washington still has no clear idea who will be its first-round playoff opponent, with Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal and the Rangers in the mix to draw the East’s top seed, with the Flyers or Rangers the more likely draw of the four.
And, Boudreau knows the second season begins next week as the most successful regular-season in team history winds down.
“I think it’s the gradual maturity and growth from 21-year-old kids who were very talented who are now 24 and 25 and have gone through the wars together,” he said. “They play for each other so well. That’s the biggest thing. They want the other prize.”