Several Capitals admitted wondering what kind of reception they would receive from fans Friday night in the first meaningless April hockey game at Verizon Center in seven years.
“All the fans, that’s why we are here,” Caps center Nicklas Backstrom said after scoring one goal and assisting on another in the Caps’ 4-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I think all the fans out there have given us amazing support. We can’t get into the playoffs, but at least we want to show them that we play for them. We know they’re very disappointed in us.”
The Capitals’ win was their fourth straight and moved them within two points of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings, each of whom lost after clinching playoff spots on Wednesday night.
If the Red Wings and Blue Jackets lose their final game and the Capitals win their season finale against the Lightning on Sunday the Caps would need to live with the reality of finishing with the same number of points as two teams that beat them out because of regulation/overtime wins.
“It’ll be annoying if we’re tied with a team in the playoffs knowing that could have been us,” said Caps defenseman Karl Alzner.
It won’t be because of a pair of long losing streaks – a seven-game drought in January and an 0-3-2 slide in late March and early April – that put the Capitals’ playoff hopes in peril.
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So, how could the Caps play so well in games that mean less than the ones they played two weeks ago?
“To be honest with you, these last two games we’ve been moving the puck better than the whole year,” Backstrom said. “Maybe the [pressure] got to us a little bit. You squeeze your stick a little more when the games are more important.”
Two days ago, Caps captain Alex Ovechkin told reporters it might be good that the Caps were eliminated, and it might be bad. Backstrom was asked if he thought the team should take this season as a wakeup call.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I think it should be for everyone. We want to take steps in the right direction. By missing the playoffs we did not take steps in the right direction. We have to see it like that and be better.”
The Caps have one more optional practice and one more game remaining in front of their fans before, as Ovechkin noted, they make tee times.
“It's gonna be like five months play golf and do some stuff and you're probably gonna miss hockey,” Ovechkin said, “so that's why you have to give everything and enjoy your moment.”
This is the first time in Alzner’s NHL career that he will be playing anything but hockey in mid-April. He’s been to the playoffs in each of his previous five seasons with the Caps.
He said it’s important for the Caps to show they care as much as the fans playing to see them.
“We’re not packing it in,” Alzner said. “They pay money for these tickets and they want to see good hockey,
“In the past guys have said they’re sorry. We just want to say we’ll be better next year. Hopefully, this is a one-season dip here and hopefully that’s enough for everyone to snap out of it. It’s a pretty crappy feeling.”