- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2010

With a chance to clinch the Eastern Conference crown in front of their home crowd at Verizon Center Sunday afternoon, the Capitals turned in an awful start and couldn’t recover from a four-goal deficit, losing to the Calgary Flames 5-3.

However, the team only had to wait four more hours before officially claiming the franchise’s first regular-season conference title in its history, as the Devils’ 5-1 loss in Philadelphia clinched the honor for Washington, which also carries home-ice advantage through at least the first three rounds of the playoffs.

It certainly wasn’t the way the team wanted the historic day to unfold, however.

Washington allowed four goals in the first period, and followed up by only managing to put 14 shots on Calgary netminder Miikka Kiprousoff through 40 minutes of play.

“We didn’t have any energy — it looked like we were skating in quicksand,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said afterwards. “[The Flames’] sense of urgency was so tremendous.”

Battling the Flames, who desperately needed a win to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive, got a three-point performance from Rene Bourque with two goals and one assist, chasing Jose Theodore from the net after just over ten minutes of play. The Capitals’ poor play also earned some rare boos from the sellout crowd that saw the team drop just its fifth game at home in regulation this season.

The bright spot for Washington during the matinee was Alexander Ovechkin scoring his 46th goal of the campaign, to briefly take the league lead from Sidney Crosby and Stephen Stamkos with seven games left for the Capitals. However, Crosby later scored twice in Pittsburgh’s 4-3 shootout loss to Toronto later Sunday evening, to pass the Caps’ star for the Richard Trophy lead with his 46th and 47th goals.

Ovechkin did also add an assist on Mathieu Perreault’s third-period goal for his 100th point of the campaign, for his fourth 100-point season of his five-year career. He also sits just one point behind Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin for the Art Ross Trophy for the leading point-getter in the regular season.

But despite a comeback attempt that saw the Capitals put 20 shots on Kiprousoff in the third period, the Capitals couldn’t quite take care of business on home ice and fell two goals short of the single point they needed to secure the Eastern Conference on their own.

“We talked about it before the game,” Mike Green said afterwards. “We’ve had slow starts before. That was the difference tonight. Otherwise, we would’ve been right there in the running. We shot ourselves in the foot in the first period.”

The accomplishment comes with three weeks to go in the regular season, as the team already had secured their third straight Southeast Division title, along with setting the record for most points in a single season (109). And it is the first time the team has ever finished atop its conference in the regular season since the team entered the NHL in 1974.

The Flames set the tone early in the game, getting a fluky first goal just 2:35 into the game. From the corner, Bourque fired the puck towards Theodore, and after the Caps’ goalie made the save, Ales Kotalik took a shot behind the goal line and it trickled in for an early Calgary lead.

Green took a penalty for closing his hand on the puck, and that opened the door for Calgary to take a 2-0 lead, as a Jarome Iginla drive went along the goal line, and Ian White banked a shot off Theodore’s back for a two-goal deficit with just 8:28 gone.

Calgary upped its lead to 3-0 with 9:26 left in the first, as Bourque fed Jay Bouwmeester, who beat Theodore for his third goal on ten shots, and left Washington in a 3-0 hole and getting outshot 10-1. Theodore was yanked from the net after the goal, and replaced with Semyon Varlamov as the Caps hoped to get a spark from a change in goal.

“I didn’t think he had it today,” Boudreau said. “He will be back in on Tuesday [against Ottawa]. He has played an awful lot of good games that have kept us in during the first period. We just weren’t ready to play in the first period. It was indicative of four shots on goal that you are not ready.”

The Caps got a chance to climb back into the game when Cory Sarich drilled Jason Chimera into the boards from behind, leading to a meele that led to a Washington power play. However, the Caps couldn’t convert, and fell behind by four goals before the period was done.

Niklas Hagman put the Flames up 4-0 with just :19.2 left in the period to cap what was perhaps Washington’s worst period of the season, getting outshot 12-4. It was only the second time all year the Caps had trailed by four goals in a game, the other being Dec. 30 in a 5-2 loss at San Jose.

The second period opened with Alexander Ovechkin getting a break in on Calgary netminder Kiprusoff, but the netminder made a nice pokecheck to end the scoring threat.

Washington got a great chance to climb back into it early in the second, getting a 5-on-3 just 3:02 in the frame on a Flames delay of game penalty. Ovechkin put the Capitals on the board with his 46th goal of the season, taking a Mike Knuble feed and firing it past Kiprusoff with 3:49 elapsed in the frame.

Tomas Fleischmann was called for a tripping in the offensive zone, but the Capitals were able to kill the penalty off and stay within striking distance halfway through the period, more than doubling its shot output from the first period in the first 10 minutes of the second.

Washington got a flurry to try and cut the deficit, but Bourque broke in, and beat Varlamov with a shot that the goalie initially stopped, but the redirected puck fluttered over his shoulder for a 5-1 lead with 2:25 left in the second period.

David Steckel quickly cut the deficit back to three by tipping a shot off a Quintin Laing feed through Kiprusoff’s legs with 1:09 left in the period.

The Caps were given a good chance to cut the deficit to two when Jamal Mayers was called for slashing just 3:45 into the third period for a Washington power play, and they did so, with Perreault — just called up from Hershey — putting a nice shot in the net just inside the goal line off an Ovechkin shot that missed the target and caught Kiprusoff out of position. The assist was Ovechkin’s 100th of the season for his fourth 100-point campaign in five years, and Perreault’s third goal of the year with Washington.

“I got the puck from [Ovechkin] after he shot it and the puck came right on to my stick and I had an open net,” Perreault told reporters afterwards.

The Capitals kept the pressure on the Flames, putting 14 shots on net in the first 12 minutes of the third — doubling their shot total for the first 40 minutes of play — and Perreault nearly got his second of the night on a wraparound attempt with just under nine minutes left in regulation.

Eric Belanger had a good chance to cut it to just a goal with seven minutes left to play, but he couldn’t quite stuff a backhander off an Alexander Semin feed past the Flames netminder.

Washington pulled Varlamov early to try and pull closer, but couldn’t light the lamp, and fell in their bid to clinch the East on their own.

The Flames become just the fifth road team to win in regulation at Verizon Center, joining an unusual group of clubs that hardly qualifies among this year’s elite teams. All five clubs are either out of the postseason hunt or fighting for their playoff lives, as of the Rangers, Canadiens, Hurricanes, Lightning and Flames, only Montreal currently occupies a playoff spot and of the remaining four, only New York is within five points of a spot.

The Capitals knew they’d be facing a team desperate for a win, and recognized they didn’t match Calgary’s intensity until it was too late.

“It was kind of a tough situation,” Ovechkin said afterwards. “They’re a team that needs points for the playoffs. We knew they’d come at us hard and we were not ready.”

“We’ve been in this position before where we’ve been a desperate hockey team,” Green added. “Three years ago when we needed to make a push and win every game to get into the playoffs we were in the same situation that they’re in. When you play desperate hockey, you’re usually successful.”

The Caps are anything but desperate, but now, with the Eastern Conference title in hand, the Capitals will look to rebound from their two-game skid Tuesday night when Ottawa pays a visit to Verizon Center. The team still will look to match the franchise record for wins in a season — 50 — and also look to build upon its seven-point lead in the bid to claim the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular-season record in the league.

According to Mike Knuble, Sunday’s brief setback was a lesson to be learned before the playoffs begin April 15th.

“In the course of many games [a loss] is going to happen,” the veteran forward said. “They had some funny goals. They got some bounces. You just put that one behind you and live for the next day.

“It’s no indication of anything. Its just one of those games you’re probably due for. It’s probably good for us at this point.”

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