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Caps 5, Maple Leafs 1: Five Observations

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

1. The Caps just keep rolling. Make it eight wins in a row for the NHL’s hottest team. Washington (24-17-2, 50 points) is unbeaten in regulation over its last 10. It is 12-1-1 since March 21 and 22-9-1 in the last 32 games since that disastrous 2-8-1 start to the season.

Washington leads second-place Winnipeg (22-19-2, 46 points) in the Southeast Division by four points with just five games remaining for each team. They play each other at Verizon Center on April 23. And because the Jets needed a shootout to beat Tampa Bay on Tuesday, 3-2, the Caps pull ahead in regulation/overtime wins with 21.

That means – for now – they own the first tiebreaker over Winnipeg (20) should it come to that. They should own the second tiebreak, too, with a 3-1 record against the Jets – though, as I keep forgetting, that is not necessarily the case. The race could come down to the fourth tiebreak, which is goal differential. That’s well in the Caps’ favor (+15 to -13) so it shouldn’t matter if it gets that far.

Everyone else keeps winning too, however, so Washington can’t really afford to just punt road games at Ottawa (Thursday) and Montreal (Saturday) later this week. To do so would be to give the Jets another chance. The No. 8 seed New York Rangers (21-17-4, 46 points) are in a rough spot. They are ahead of Winnipeg simply because they have a game in hand and are way behind in regulation/overtime wins (17). Meanwhile, the No. 7 New York Islanders (22-16-5, 49 points) and No. 6 Ottawa Senators (22-14-6, 50 points) both won on Tuesday as well. The Caps’ margin for error is still slim given the difficult schedule upcoming.

2. The contest took an angry turn when Toronto defenseman Jay McClement hit Washington center Nicklas Backstrom from behind and sent him hard into the wall in front of the Maple Leafs bench. Alex Ovechkin immediately responded by jumping McClement – though on-ice officials deemed no penalty. Caps coach Adam Oates thought it was a clear board.

Backstrom had the expected dry response: “I saw the board. That’s what I saw,”

But some of his teammates agreed with Oates.

“It’s one of those dangerous plays,” defenseman Jack Hillen said. “It happened to me earlier in the season. You get hit like three or four feet away from the boards. It’s just a dangerous play. He’s lucky that he’s no worse for the wear.”

Hiller suffered a shoulder injury in the season opener at Tampa Bay Jan. 19 and didn’t return until March 16. Goalie Braden Holtby had a good view of the play, too, and admitted that some of the onus is on the offensive player not putting himself in a vulnerable position. But Backstrom was three or four feet away from the boards and had just turned his back to play the puck – and ultimately the responsibility rests on the defensive player to let up.

“[Backstrom is] one of the best in the game at not putting himself in a situation where he can get toe-picked a little bit,” Holtby said. “But it’s still…a play you don’t want to get finished, and I’m surprised they didn’t get a penalty for that.”

The Caps managed to kill the two-minute charging call on Ovechkin to keep their slim lead and the Verizon Center crowd roared to life. That penalty came at 15:24. Just 3:57 later Washington forward Jason Chimera went after McClement again and a fight ensued sending both men to the penalty box.

“It shows team toughness, and that’s what a leader’s all about, too,” defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “I think Alex brings that. He’s not afraid to stand in there for his teammates, no matter who it is. And I think he showed that, and I think our team feeds off stuff like that.”

3. Figured this argument would gain steam. But another goal and an assist has fueled an Alex Ovechkin for Hart Trophy movement. That still seems dubious. Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby still has the NHL points lead (56) despite playing in 36 games with a broken jaw. That’s 75 percent of a 48-game season. Is that enough to hold on? In an 82-game season that’s about a 61-game pace. It’s close. Ovechkin now has 19 goals and nine assists in his last 18 games. He also has an NHL-best 28 goals in 43 games.

“I’m obviously very biased about that. So my answer would be, yeah, absolutely,” Oates said. “Obviously, Sidney Crosby is another candidate, for sure. He had such a scoring lead. But I think you gotta factor in the fact that he’s missed a lot of games. That’s not really for me to say though. That’s you guys.”

4. Another big night for Hillen, who flew to Minnesota to finally see wife, Caitlin, and new baby boy, Knox, on Sunday. The schedule just hadn’t allowed for anything more than FaceTime visits since Knox was born on April 6. Hillen played in Saturday’s game against Tampa Bay in the District, arrived home around 8:30 a.m. on Sunday and went right to Knox’s baptism. He arrived back in Washington at 10 p.m. on Monday and was ready to play in Tuesday’s game against Toronto, where he scored a goal – his third in three games and sixth point in five games.

Hillen is hopeful he can get Caitlin, Knox and older son, Finn, back in the Washington area soon. Remember, this is a player who besides adding to his family also is in the midst of finishing a house in Minnesota and signed a two-year contract extension earlier this month. It’s been a busy time and coincided with a strong stretch of hockey.

“I think that’s part of the player today,” Oates said. “He’s in such good condition that he can go home, miss a day-and-a-half, fly back. Obviously, part of his professional life is his personal life. And he was able to do that and stay focused and play good hockey for us and that’s our job. That is being a hockey player.”

5. And yet another goal for right wing Troy Brouwer. He scored at 7:55 of the second period – just 2:52 after Martin Erat nabbed his first goal as a Capital – and made it 3-0 Washington. The Caps added two more for good measure, but the Leafs, who had just played the night before in New Jersey, didn’t have the legs to come back from that one. Brouwer finished a 2-on-1 with defenseman John Carlson. Erat had the secondary assist on the play.

Brouwer now has 17 goals and in 42 games is one away from the total he had in 82 games last season (18). At 92 shots on goal he is only 41 shy of his career-best total (133) set last season. He now has 30 points and is only 10 off his career-best in that category set while with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009-10. Brouwer probably won’t reach any of those marks given there’s just five games left in the regular season. But the fact that he’s even close is amazing.

Follow me on Twitter@bmcnally14

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