Thanks to last night's win by the Jets over Buffalo, the Caps came into tonight's game needing a regulation or overtime win to clinch the Southeast Division title for the season. And they came out flying, taking it to the Jets, and playing hard to keep it in the offensive zone.
They got a break early, too, when Hendricks put one in off the back of Pavelec's shoulder from the corner for an early lead. Play went back and forth for a while after that, with play generally favoring the Caps, but the Jets having a pair of unbelievable chances. One of those chances was literally pulled off the goal line by Erskine (he'd actually made a nice play on the earlier incredible chance as well, where Carlson ended up clearing the puck from the paint when Holtby was down); that one took a substantial review to be sure it hadn't completely crossed (it did mostly cross, but did not clearly make it all the way. If the call in play had been a goal, I don't think the call would have been reversed; it was that close).
But the Caps did continue to play hard, and were rewarded again, this time by the third line, when Chimmer took a pass from Perreault, pulled it a few feet over, in front of the net, put it off of Pavelec, then knocked the rebound over Ondrej to double the margin.
Half a minute later, Volpatti took a slashing penalty when he retaliated for a shot to his head (no call), and went off. The Caps did a good job holding them off for the rest of the period, and took their two-goal lead into the intermission.
For the period, they had a solid six-shot edge, and had to be feeling pretty good.
But things did not continue well in the second, as Kane was given an uncontested entry into the zone, and put the puck into the far side of the net only sixteen seconds in (and five seconds before the power play expired; Erskine's only real negative on the night was being the screen on this shot), cutting the margin in half. Play continued, mostly favoring the Caps, but the Jets were still the next team to score.
Oleksy took the puck behind the net, and threw it around the boards, but Antropov intercepted there and three it into the high slot where Wheeler immediately buried it into the net. I must admit, I was getting a bit worried at that point.
Oates responded by throwing the top line out there, and they delivered on that shift. Nicky took the puck over the blue line, and tossed it wide to OV on the right. OV got half a step on the defender and threw it back across the net, between Nick's defender's legs, and off of Backstrom and in (which was all sorts of weird. It got reviewed, even though there was nothing resembling a kicking motion, and, even stranger, OV was initially credited with the goal).
A couple minutes later, the third line struck again when the puck ended up loose in front of Pavelec in the slot. Everyone was reaching for it, but Matty hit it with his stick first, and it carried over Ondrej and into the back of the net.
So after a very busy second period, where the Caps again had a large edge in shots, the Caps were still up two.
The third period was more even than the first two (especially in terms of shots), though the Caps did get a power play five minutes in. It wasn't a great power play overall, though it did get a couple of good chances. But no insurance goal.
In fact, the lead was cut in half again, four minutes after that power play ended, when Antropov carried in without being met at the line. He then put a wrist shot into the top corner before he could be fully engaged by the Caps blueliners.
That led to some fairly frantic play, especially when Perreault got called for high sticking, although the PK did a fantastic job on that kill. They not only held Winnipeg shotless, but got two opportunities of their own. Brouwer got a beautiful breakaway, but was unable to beat Pavelec. And Beagle missed the net entirely on a 2-on-1.
They kept the momentum up after that, playing hard, and putting the puck in deep continuously then hitting the Jets with the forecheck. They didn't score any goals, and didn't even get a lot of shots (though there were a couple of very good shifts, particularly including one by the fourth line), but were keeping the Jets from even getting close.
And they kept doing that until there was a minute and a half or so left. At that point, the Jets did manage to get it into the zone long enough to pull Pavelec, but were unable to keep it there when the puck went out of play.
Again, the Caps went back to the forecheck (and some ridiculously short shifts), and eventually got a turnover just outside the Jets zone. It was on Nick's stick, and he threw it across to OV. I'm almost surprised the defender didn't step out of the way when OV went into a full windup, but it didn't really matter. OV didn't miss, and the celebration could begin with about half a minute left.
There was a slightly bizarre moment a few seconds after that, when Erskine and Tangradi got sent off for matching misconducts (but no other call), but nothing else of any interest. In fact, the game ended with the Caps in a board battle behind the Jets net.
So the Caps will win the Southeast (the Jets actually could end up tied in points with the Caps, but the Caps have the tiebreakers) and the Islanders will make the playoffs (Winnipeg can no longer pass them, either).
I hope this means that some guys (most notably, Holtby) will get at least one game of rest before the end of the season. It'd be even better if Orlov could come up, but I doubt that'll happen. Maybe Wolski will get another game or two.
Even more, I'm hoping Ward will return from his knee (?) injury. It'd be nice if Laich would return also, but I'm not holding my breath.
And I just checked, and the Caps have no chance to catch Boston/Montreal for the second spot, so there's certainly no reason to go all out for both games.
Oh, and the TV crew got a great shot of McPhee celebrating momentarily, right after the empty netter was scored. This is at least partial vindication of his decision-making this year. I thought he made the wrong decision (well, I'm still not entirely sure he made the right one), but they did make the playoffs, at least, so it wasn't a terrible choice.
So Ottawa and Boston are the last two games. They're both at home, and both teams will be fighting (Ottawa has fallen all the way back to eighth place, and could be overtaken by Winnipeg. Boston is tied with Montreal for second in the conference). We'll see what happens.
Update: I just noticed that every team in the East in playoff position has a positive goal differential, and every team out has a negative one. Not often you get quite that high a correlation between goals and wins, especially in hockey.