Nobody was ready to talk about potential playoff opponents yet. The moments following Game No. 82 of the regular season belonged to Alex Ovechkin.
Ovechkin scored two goals to finish the season with 49, Michal Kempny and Nicklas Backstrom each added a goal and an assist and Braden Holtby made 23 saves as the Washington Capitals beat the New Jersey Devils 5-3 in their season finale Saturday night at Capital One Arena.
The Capitals, who had the Metropolitan Division clinched since Easter Sunday, finished the season with 105 points (49-26-7) and will face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Ovechkin, though he came up short of 50 goals for the season, also assured himself the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer for the seventh time.
After Ovechkin scored his second goal midway through the third period, the Capitals spent the rest of the game trying to set him up for a hat trick that would have given him his 50th goal of the season. It wasn’t meant to be, but it added some extra spice to a regular season game that meant little else for Washington.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz began his postgame press conference by telling reporters not to ask him about playoff matchups or the ongoing goaltender competition, joking, “You’ll get zero and a walkout.”
But just like the players, he was happy to talk about Ovechkin’s quest for 50 goals.
“I said going into this, we just go four lines and not worry about matchups,” Trotz said. “Then Ovi ended up with two (goals) and the puck kept following him around. I said, keep them short, I’m gonna use you a lot. See if we can go for it.”
Ovechkin was happy he got as close to 50 as he did (he has reached the milestone seven times before), but also said “it is what it is.”
“The most important thing now ahead of us. Our second season now really starts in a couple days,” he said.
He wasted little time getting on track for his shot at 50. He scored 2:21 into the game on a one-timer from his left circle, off assists from linemates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson.
The Capitals dominated puck possession for most of the first 10 minutes, and when New Jersey started a breakaway, Wilson swept in from behind to break up a shot. But the Devils kept possession on the rebound and from behind the net, Patrick Maroon fed Nico Hischier for a game-tying goal at 8:10.
The last five minutes of the period were sloppy all around, with shots at a premium and several turnovers. But on an extended shift, the Capitals’ second line produced a flurry of chances in the final minute and one eventually connected. Brett Connolly passed it from the right corner to the slot to find a sprinting Backstrom for the goal.
“I thought in the first period it was a little bit of a track meet. It was a little bit of a shinny,” Trotz said. “Then we got back to our details in the second. We were much better, and I think they did too in terms of their playing.”
The Capitals spent the start of the second period in the offensive zone and scored again nearly four minutes in. Kempny shot a rocket from near the blue line that amazingly did not touch another player in the crowded center of the zone. It was Kempny’s second goal as a Capital (third of the year), and with the primary assist, fourth-line forward Shane Gersich notched his first point in the NHL.
Kempny celebrated the goal, but followed it up on the next play with a cross-check. During the penalty kill (the game’s first for either team), Devante Smith-Pelly’s stick broke and he was briefly stranded in the center of the defensive zone. Despite that brief, de facto 5-on-3 scenario, Washington managed to kill.
New Jersey continued to miss chances in the second, including a pass to Miles Wood alone in front of the crease that the forward couldn’t corral. The Devils recovered the bouncy puck and fed it back to him at the left circle. But by then, Holtby had no trouble making the save.
But Wood got his before the period was up. For the second time of the night, Maroon passed the puck from behind the net for a primary assist. Wood took it at the crease and stuffed it past Holtby, narrowing the score to 3-2 Washington right before the end of the frame.
Two minutes into the third, Maroon struck again for his third point of the night with a peanut butter goal.
Ovechkin responded with No. 49 three minutes later. After he and Kuznetsov pulled off a few dekes in the offensive zone, and after Wilson missed a wide-open shot, Ovechkin caught a Devil pass, set his own table and scored from the right circle.
Ovechkin had his first chance for No. 50 with about 10:30 left to play, on a breakaway steal from Mirco Mueller, but he missed wide. The more he stayed on the ice, the more the crowd was incited to chant, “We want 50!”
Andre Burakovsky joined the party about 12 minutes into the third. Bang-bang assists from Backstrom and Kempny set him up in front of the net.
But the rest of the period was dedicated to setting Ovechkin up with chances for the goal he was looking for. He had several looks over his final two shifts — five of his eight shots on goal came in the third period — but it wasn’t in the cards.
Ovechkin joked that his falling shy of 50 wasn’t for lack of effort. He skated for most of the final 10 minutes of the game.
“You can see I’m ready for the playoffs. I’m in very good shape,” he said.
Trotz, Ovechkin and the other players on the ice with him all said they could hear the crowd’s chants. The moment wasn’t lost on the Russian’s teammates.
“I think you could tell by the way we played, a lot of guys were passing up shots trying to get him the 50th,” Brooks Orpik said. “You try to be respectful at the same time against the opponent. But I think if they were in that situation, they’d be doing the same thing.”
“I was praying that he would get 50, and everybody on the bench was too,” Trotz said.
The Devils’ regulation loss meant they stalled at 97 points for the season and cemented them in the Eastern Conference’s second Wild Card spot. They will face the winner of the Atlantic Division in the first round.
Despite the opportunity to improve their playoff seeding, the Devils rested leading scorer Taylor Hall and top goalie Keith Kinkaid. Maroon led New Jersey with points on all three goals (two assists and one score of his own).
Washington finished the season winning 12 of its final 15 games and won the season series against New Jersey 3-0-1.