For many, many moons the Capitals have enjoyed their time in the NHL’s Southeast Division. With re-alignment slated for next season, these are the final days for the division as we know it. So, Washington stepped onto the ice Tuesday night in D.C. on a mission to claim the top spot for a fifth time in six years and skated away with a playoff berth and a 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets earned a 2-1 win in Buffalo Monday night to pull within one point of the Caps for the division lead. The visitors skated hard again inside Verizon Center, but could not overcome the Capitals who have surged with momentum ever since a weekend in Manitoba back in March.
The Caps jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in the opening period thanks to Matt Hendricks and Jason Chimera.
Hendricks caromed a shot from below the goal-line, off the back of Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec and into the cage at the 3:12 mark. The red-rocking faithful inside of Verizon Center were deliriously happy with Hendricks 5th of the season and third against the Jets.
The fans were jubilant again about 14 minutes later when Mathieu Perreault found Chimera with a nice pass from behind the goal to the winger on the top of the crease. Chimera’s initial shot was stopped by Pavelec, but he tracked the rebound and netted his 3rd goal of the year.
The home team had a 2-0 lead after one thanks in large part to a pair goal-saving plays around the net by John Erskine. The bruising defender bailed his goalie out twice with pucks dangerously close to the cage, one of which required video review to confirm the disc had not crossed the goal-line.
The Jets carried a power-play into the second frame and came right out of the dressing to score on it. Evander Kane zipped a wrist shot past Braden Holtby only 16 seconds into the period.
Nik Antropov would set up Blake Wheeler beautifully for the tying tally at 14:11 of the second. Wheeler took the pass 10 feet in front of Holtby and beat the Caps goalie high to the glove side.
Washington and Winnipeg began the night as the two highest-scoring teams in the second period in the NHL and neither would disappoint this evening.
Nicklas Backstrom stopped the Jets momentum swing only 37 seconds after the Wheeler goal. Backstrom went strong to the front of the net and Alex Ovechkin found him with a pass that glanced off the skate of the Swede and into the goal. Video review confirmed there was no kicking motion.
Less than three minutes later, Mathieu Perreault scored what turned out to be the game-winner. The hard-working center sniffed out a rebound and chipped the puck over a fallen Pavelec to make it 4-2 after 40 minutes.
Nik Antropov was next on the scoreboard, giving the Jets some hope with 8:10 left in the third period. He placed a perfect shot over the blocker of Holtby to make it a one-goal game.
As time was ticking away, the Verizon Center crowd was roaring its lungs out. The Caps knew that they would clinch the Southeast with a win in regulation or in overtime.
The OT period would not be necessary, as Alex Ovechkin blasted his league-leading 31st goal of the season into the empty net with 29 seconds remaining.
Washington is now locked into the #3-seeded spot in the Eastern Conference. Winnipeg is not eliminated from the playoff race with this loss. Unfortunately for the Jets, they have only one game remaining against Montreal at home on Thursday.
The Caps will tangle with the Ottawa Senators that same night. The Senators are very much involved in what should be a frantic chase for the final playoff berths in the East. Coverage of Caps / Sens begins with Capitals Central at 6:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet.