- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

TORONTO — Mike Knuble said Tuesday morning that he looked at two different standings and saw the Capitals in first place in one and in second in the other. There’s no doubt anymore.

The Caps are in first in the Eastern Conference, thanks to their 3-2 shootout win over the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Center and the Flyers’ 5-2 loss to Ottawa elsewhere in Ontario. They also clinched their fourth straight Southeast Division title.

“It’s a good feeling. It was one of our goals at the beginning of the season – one of our long-term goals,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “To reach that and meet that, we’re gonna take a little sense of pride in it and it’s gratifying, but at the same time we wanna keep moving forward.”

Buffalo’s win over Tampa Bay allowed the Caps to make room for another division banner at Verizon Center before Washington’s game ended, but players and coach Bruce Boudreau didn’t seem too wrapped up about the Southeast. They didn’t even care too much about spoiling Toronto’s playoff hopes, because the Caps’ sights are on seeding and their own playoff fate.

“We knew what was on the line for them, but we were geared up because we know what’s on the line for us,” Boudreau said. “We had to take care of business.”

The Caps only took care of business after Knuble scored the only goal in the fourth round of the shootout against James Reimer. It was a hunch by Boudreau to pick the oldest guy on his bench, and it worked out.

And it just happened that the 38-year-old Knuble was able to beat the 23-year-old Reimer, who for three periods and overtime mostly stifled the Caps to the tune of 39 saves on 41 shots.

“They were able to hold us off, but we were doing a lot of good things,” Knuble said. “We were doing the right things; we were eliminating their chances and generating ours.”

That meant limiting the Leafs’ chances against Michal Neuvirth, who picked up the victory and seems to be picking up steam as the Caps’ likely playoff starter. Neuvirth stopped all four Toronto shots in the shootout, and while he didn’t have to make a lot of stops, he made them count.

“Big saves when you have to. And when the game’s on the line, he was pretty good,” Boudreau said. “[When] they had some really good opportunities, he stood his ground and he did a great job of controlling rebounds.”

Of course someone had to provide offense, and it was the unlikely duo of Alex Ovechkin and John Erskine. Ovechkin scoring is hardly unlikely, as he recorded his 300th career NHL goal on Tuesday night. But for Erskine it was his first since Nov. 26 and his fourth this season.

And while Erskine won’t get style points for banking a shot off Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn, he’ll take it.

“[Reimer] was stopping everything,” Erskine said. “But I think that play, their forward took the lane away and I just tried to get it towards the net, and we got the bounce and it was a huge goal.”

It at least allowed the Caps to get into position to grab the win and take a two-point lead over Philadelphia atop the Eastern Conference. Knuble admitted he looked at the scoreboard in the third period to see his old team losing – and while the division wasn’t the focus, he allowed himself a brief moment to soak in another accomplishment.

“All things considered,” he said, “it’s been another good year so far.”

Now with two games left, the Caps are in the driver’s seat to earn the top seed in the East. As much as Boudreau has said he doesn’t care about that, the competitive fire is burning with that a big possibility now.

“You’re not gonna try to play for second place. You’re gonna play to be the best,” he said. “If we can win all three and things fell the way they’re supposed to, it’d be a lot better to be No. 1 than it would be to be No. 2.”

Three more points in two remaining games would get the Caps there.

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