By the spring of 2011, it became the norm for the Washington Capitals to win the Southeast Division. Ho-hum, hang another banner at Verizon Center.
After four straight titles in the not-too-distant past, these Caps are two years removed from the last one. Two months ago, they would have gladly taken an opportunity like they had Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.
“Hell yeah, we would’ve,” defenseman Jack Hillen said.
The Caps wasted no time taking advantage of it, as they beat the Jets 5-3 to clinch the Southeast and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s Washington’s sixth straight playoff appearance and fifth division championship in that time.
“We did it, everybody pretty happy right now in locker room,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We make our first step and everybody proud of themselves, it’s nice feeling right now.”
It’s something that would have been difficult to envision at several points earlier this season. The Caps started 2-8-1 and were at the bottom of the NHL standings.
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Even as recently as mid-March after a loss at the Pittsburgh Penguins, they were 14th in the East and looked far more destined for a high lottery pick in the draft than a trip to the playoffs. But starting with back-to-back victories in Winnipeg, the Caps went 14-2-1 to sew up the division.
“We had a lousy start, and I don’t think many of us thought we would come this far,” coach Adam Oates said. “But we obviously put some really good hockey together and the guys have grown.”“
The Caps made up a division deficit that was 10 points to the Carolina Hurricanes on March 13 and nine to the Jets as recently as March 20. On April 23, they put the Southeast out of reach and dealt a serious blow to the Jets’ attempt to make the playoffs.
“It’s not the feather that we want to have at the end of the year, that’s for sure,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “We did what we set out to do in the regular season, and now we’ve got to continue on.”
While Washington reeled off an eight-game winning streak along the way that got it into first place April 4, domination of Winnipeg paved the way to home-ice advantage in the first round.
That continued Tuesday night.
Jets coach Claude Noel worried before the game about his team’s nerves, while Oates pointed out that Winnipeg’s players would probably be tired.
Whatever the reason, the Caps showed early that they were clearly the better team. The first four shifts of the game they tilted the ice toward Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.
It was the opposite of what defenseman Mike Green expected when he said of the Jets: “We’ve got to make sure that we match their push.” Instead, the Caps pushed, took an early lead on Matt Hendricks’ goal 3:12 in and kept up the pressure.
Winnipeg had its chances, most notably an odd-man rush a minute later when Caps defenseman John Erskine threw his body in front of Bryan Little’s shot that would have gone into an empty net. Moments like those are how playoff berths are won.
“It’s a play that anybody would’ve done,” Erskine said. “I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time and kept the puck out.”
But Erskine had another one in him later in the first period, when a redirection by Winnipeg’s Aaron Gagnon rolled off Holtby’s back and onto the goal line. It required video review, but Erskine managed to swat the puck away before it completely crossed.
When Jason Chimera scored late in the first, his goal increased the Caps’ advantage over the Jets in the previous 10 periods to 15-1.
It took until after the first intermission for the Jets to push back, something they were never able to do in losses to the Caps at home last month. Evander Kane’s goal just 16 seconds into the period made for even tighter hockey in a game that already resembled the intensity of Game 1 of a playoff series.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Oates said. “The building was electric. … It kind of had a playoff atmosphere to it.”
The Jets had the disadvantage of playing this one 24 hours after their previous must-win game at the Buffalo Sabres. Noel said “there isn’t any” concern about back-to-back games, but Oates figured Winnipeg’s fatigue would show itself.
“A team is maybe a little sloppy because they’re a little tired,” he said.
Sloppy play was evident as the Jets frequently turned the puck over in their own zone and relied on Pavelec to keep them in it. Even when Blake Wheeler tied the score in the second, the Caps had an quick answer, as Nicklas Backstrom scored off an Alex Ovechkin feed 37 seconds later to reignite a crowd that had gone quiet.
Seconds after those fans serenaded Ovechkin with chants of “MVP,” third-liner Mathieu Perreault provided the insurance goal that was needed to ensure there will be playoff games in Washington next week.
“It’s not a big deal,” Holtby said. “To me, those things don’t matter. It’s the Stanley Cup that’s the only thing that matters. This is a step in the right direction. But we have a lot more work to do. And it starts now.”
Having another accomplishment to start on in April and early My would have been nothing but a dream not too long ago, but the Caps will gladly take it now that it has come true.
“We keep fighting, we keep battling, we stick to the system, we stick together,” Ovechkin said. “It was most important thing. Of course sometimes kind of situation when everybody was struggling and everybody was [ticked] off but we fight through it and right now you can see result.”