Not an easy road, but the Capitals are division champions again

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Sports,NHL,Capitals,Brian McNally

Caps head to playoffs for sixth straight year

An accomplishment that has become so routine for the Capitals was anything but that this season.

For a time, players and coaches wondered if they had enough to overcome a wretched start to the lockout-shortened 2013 season. They did. On Tuesday night at Verizon Center, a 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets secured the organization's sixth consecutive Stanley Cup playoff berth.

Matt Hendricks and Jason Chimera scored in the first period and Alex Ovechkin added an empty-net goal with 29 seconds left as Washington beat the Jets and won the Southeast Division title for the fifth time in six seasons. All of that after a 2-8-1 start to the season that left players and coaches alike perplexed. Since then, the Caps (26-18-2, 54 points) are 24-10-1.

"It was obviously our goal [to make the playoffs]," goalie Braden Holtby said. "It was just a little bit of a rough path to get there. But it's one step. Now we move on and focus on the playoffs."

Hendricks gave Washington the early lead it coveted against a Winnipeg team that had played and won in Buffalo just 24 hours before. He helped win a battle in the left corner, escaped with the puck and promptly banked a shot off the back of goalie Ondrej Pavelec just 3:12 into the game.

The Caps would eventually take a 2-0 lead on a goal by Chimera at 17:53 of the first. He took a pass from Mathieu Perreault behind the net, whacked a shot at Pavelec and then lifted the rebound over his pads. It was just the third goal of the season for the hard-luck Chimera, who had 20 in 82 games a season ago.

In between, defenseman John Erskine helped keep the score where it stood. With Holtby (24 saves) pulled out of position, forward Bryan Little ripped a shot 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.

At 6:17, Erskine was there again. This time, a shot by Aaron Gagnon popped off Holtby's shoulder and over him. But just before it could slide across the goal line, Erskine was there to sweep it away. Referees needed video review to check and couldn't find conclusive proof the entire puck crossed the line.

But the Jets worked quickly to get back into the game in the second period. Evander Kane scored on the power play just :16 in. That cut the lead to 2-1. They tied it on a goal by Blake Wheeler at 14:11. That play started with a hard-around by Caps defenseman Steve Oleksy that didn't make it out of the defensive zone. Nik Antropov found Wheeler, who slammed the puck past Holtby.

Winnipeg's joy didn't last long, however. Just 37 seconds later, an Alex Ovechkin pass deflected off Nicklas Backstrom's skate and in. That made it 3-2 and the crowd roared back to life.

Less than three minutes later, the lead was back to two. A drop pass off the rush to defenseman Jack Hillen led to a shot. Perreault drove to the front and got off a shot with two Jets covering him. The puck lifted over Pavelec to make it 4-2 at 17:34 of the second. But the Jets weren't done. Antropov made it a one-goal game with 8:10 left in the third period. Washington had to kill a late penalty and held on for the victory.

"I always think we had the team to do this. We've been on runs before," Chimera said. "I know what we've got in here. I didn't think it was impossible."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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