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Caps 5, Jets 3: Five Observations

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

1. There was no way they were making this easy. It hasn’t been all season for the Caps. No reason to start now. And so they blew a 2-0 lead, built it back up again only to allow a late third-period goal and then held on for dear life on a crucial penalty kill in the waning minutes.

They survived. They have all year after a 2-8-1 start to the season put them in jeopardy of missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2007. No worries. Washington clinched the Southeast Division title and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 5-3 win clinched by Alex Ovechkin’s 31st goal – an empty-netter that sent the Verizon Center crowd into a frenzy.

“I didn’t have doubts about the way they could play and what I think it could turn into,” Caps coach Adam Oates said. “The doubts, I think, came just because I was a first-year coach, and all the people out there that would jump on that. But I’m glad all the guys didn’t listen to them. We fought through that.”

How good was this comeback from that shaky start? Washington is 24-10-1 since losing at Pittsburgh on Feb. 7. On March 13 the Caps trailed Carolina in the Southeast Division by 10 points. On March 20 they were nine points behind Winnipeg, which had taken over first place. By April 4 they had tied the Jets. Never a doubt? Maybe. But give them truth serum and the players would likely say this scenario was a little far-fetched at the time. They made it all the way back, and they did it in style and with two games to spare. Bring on the Stanley Cup playoffs for the sixth year in a row.

2. So now on to the next question: Who will the Caps play in the first round? No easy way to answer that. It could be any of Toronto (No. 5), the New York Islanders (No. 6), the New York Rangers (No. 7) or Ottawa (No. 8). The Maple Leafs and Senators both have three games left, and the two New York teams have two each remaining. The invaluable web site Sportsclubstats.com lists the chances as Toronto (7%), Islanders (44%), Rangers (22%) and Ottawa (27%). Not sure Washington cares either way. Each series has its drawbacks.

The Islanders and Senators are a combined 4-0-1 against the Caps this season, with Ottawa coming to town on Thursday for a crucial game of its own. The Rangers and Washington have already met in the postseason three times in four years, including last season’s seven-game slugfest. Toronto might be the best bet because it has so little playoff experience, but that’s unlikely to happen barring a collapse.

3. It’s looking more and more like Alex Ovechkin is headed for his third “Rocket” Richard trophy as the NHL’s leading goal scorer. Make it 31 goals through 46 games after his empty-netter put the game out of reach in the final minute. Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos is still at 28 with three games left so he could catch Ovechkin. Only Crosby (broken jaw), Stamkos (55) and teammate Martin St. Louis (54) are ahead of Ovechkin’s 53 points in the race for the Art Ross Trophy for most points. Ovechkin winning that for a second time is a longer shot, but he has two games left to try. Crosby has missed 10 games, but still leads the NHL in points (56) – though it is likely he will finally be passed this week by someone as the regular season comes to a close.

Washington’s final two games don’t mean much to it now. But if you’re making the Ovechkin/Hart Trophy argument for NHL MVP, he had 22 goals and 11 assists over the last 21 games, and his team went 16-5 to capture the division during that stretch. He’s at least in the mix.

4. Matt Hendricks just laughed and deadpanned “Providence” when I asked him the last time he’d been named No. 1 Star in a game.

“Better go check the archives,” he cracked, insisting he can’t remember earning that honor during his NHL career.

You can quibble and say defenseman John Erskine deserved it on Tuesday. He did save two goals by himself, after all, and was a physical presence all night. But Hendricks did more than his share, too. He banked a shot off goalie Ondrej Pavelec for the first goal of the game to get the Caps started. And he and linemates Jay Beagle and Aaron Volpatti were dynamite. Volpatti hit a post at one point and Beagle had several quality scoring chances. That trio was relentless, and as a result all played more than 10 minutes. Not bad for the fourth line.

“We had some big minutes played by our third, fourth lines that wore them out all game,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “You could tell. Every time it seemed like I looked down there it was those lines grinding out in the corners and got rewarded with a couple huge goals.”

Added defenseman Steve Oleksy: “The guys who don’t get a lot of recognition throughout the year, but when it comes crunch time, it comes playoffs, those are the guys that are going to win you series. It usually comes down to who’s got a better third and fourth line. Obviously your top guys are going to show up, but it’s those guys that wear them down and when they chip in it’s huge for our team, and I think that’s why we got the result we did.”

 5. More on Erskine: If you’re wondering why general manager George McPhee signed him to a two-year, $3.925 million contract extension earlier this year, games like that are your answer. Erskine twice saved goals in the first period by himself. The first was on a Bryan Little shot ripped from the left wing off a nice pass by teammate Andrew Ladd. But a sliding Erskine was there at the near post to stop the puck. As he lay on his stomach catching his breath, Holtby gave him three taps on the back with his stick.

At 6:17 Erskine was there again. This time a deflection by Aaron Gagnon in front popped off Holtby’s shoulder and over him. But millimeters before it crossed the goal line – and it took television replay in Toronto a while to see it – Erskine swept the puck out of danger.

Ovechkin joked that Erskine is “our third goalie right now.”

“He’s kind of like our unsung hero,” forward Jason Chimera said. “I don’t know if we have an award for that, but he’s always a guy that’s hitting, banging bodies, and he’s playing good defensively and a hell of a save, too.”

Paired with John Carlson once again, Erskine played 19:11. He was credited with seven blocked shots and four hits and registered a shot on goal. He even whistled a shot just wide late in regulation with the Caps trying to extend a 4-3 lead.

“Sometimes when you fight and you play physical like that I think people overlook your skill,” Oleksy said. “[Erskine] makes great plays, he’s strong on the puck. He’s a leader back here on the D corps for us. He might not wear a letter, but in the locker room everybody knows it, and I think people are starting to see it, too.”

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14

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