Senators 2, Caps 1 (Overtime): Five Observations

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

1. It felt like a game between two teams that figured they’d be playing for higher stakes next week. The post-whistle skirmishes came fast and furious between the Senators and the Caps on Thursday night. For the third time this season Ottawa left the building with two points. For Washington, it at least earned a point of its own this time and – for the most part – matched the intensity of a team fighting for its Stanley Cup playoff lives.

An overtime goal by old friend Sergei Gonchar – the “whoop, whoops” don’t bother him, either, it seems – gave the Senators the win and vaulted them into the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference. With two games left they are well positioned to face the Caps in the first round.

That particular series would likely start on Wednesday given Ottawa’s make-up game with the Boston Bruins on Sunday. That is a direct result of the Boston Marathon bombings last week. All other NHL teams finish their schedules on Saturday, if not earlier.

We still don’t know the playoff opponent for the Caps, though. Ottawa can still catch No. 5 Toronto, believe it or not. Or it could be passed by both the New York Rangers and New York Islanders and slip to No. 8. Even with just one game left – or two in the Senators’ case – we just don’t know.

Ottawa hosts Philadelphia on Saturday before that finale in Boston. The Islanders play at Buffalo on Friday night. The Rangers host New Jersey on Saturday afternoon. Toronto plays Montreal at home on Saturday night. The Maple Leafs could finish No. 5 or No. 6. The Rangers and Islanders could place No. 6, 7 or 8. Uncertainty still reigns.

2. We’ve seen this a few times this season from the Caps in 2013 and it reared its ugly head again. Penalties in the third period stalled their momentum and one was a misconduct penalty on Jason Chimera when he wasn’t even on the ice. Mike Ribeiro was hit with two separate penalties in the third – hooking and then roughing. Earlier in the game John Erskine got into a shoving match with veteran Swede Daniel Alfredsson, of all people. Both of them went to the penalty box for roughing that time. Alfredsson looked perplexed – like a guy with a perfect driving record being pulled over by the cops.

The point? The Caps got too involved in the extra-curricular activities. And Ribeiro and Chimera have been the two biggest loose cannons in chirping referees this season. Fair or not, those two need to find a way to control their emotions.

“Probably a little bit more than we’d like,” Washington coach Adam Oates said. “Guys got a little frustrated toward the second half of the game.”

Ottawa forward Chris Neil is a noted agitator. He clearly got under the skin of multiple Washington players. That’s his job. Dale Hunter once played it to perfection here, for those of you who’ve forgotten. Get used to Neil’s mug if these two teams see each other next week. You will hate the sight of it by the second period of Game 1.

“[Neil is] one of those guys that plays on the edge,” Oates said. “He got a boarding penalty early in the game. It maybe could have been a five, depending on the situation or who calls it. That gets frustrating. But he’s a guy – he finishes his hits. He skates well. He brings a lot of force behind him, so you’ve got to know he’s on the ice.”

Oates’ players were similarly diplomatic. I have a feeling what they say behind closed doors or at your local watering hole wouldn’t be.

“You think he fired us up? I think he was just playing hard and we were playing hard against him,” Erskine said.

Added defenseman Karl Alzner: “Well, he hit a guy from behind, a couple dirty things. He’s a guy that you try to get under his skin a little bit and sometimes you got a little bit too far trying to get him to take one. I don’t know. I don’t think he’s as bad as some of the guys, but he got our attention tonight.”

3. A couple of minor victories for the Caps in a game that had no impact on their playoff position: Alex Ovechkin scored goal No. 32. That extended his NHL lead and a third Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy appears inevitable now. His power move around Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips – credit teammate Marcus Johansson for the nice aerial pass – tied the game at 1-1 at 8:31 of the third period. If it wasn’t for the late penalties, maybe Washington finds a way to build on the momentum from that game and win that one.

Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos has 29 goals with one game left. The Islanders’ John Tavares has 28. An Art Ross Trophy for most points will be a different story. Ovechkin has 54 points but trails Tampa Bay’s Martin St. Louis (58), Stamkos (56), Pittsburgh’s injured Sidney Crosby (56) and is tied with Chicago’s Patrick Kane (54).

And goalie Michal Neuvirth had a solid night in his 13th start of the season. Oates needed to play him in case Braden Holtby falters next week or is injured. He faced 41 shots and stopped 39 of them. That should give the Caps much-needed confidence if they must turn to Neuvirth. He just hasn’t played enough this season. Holtby should be back in net against the Bruins in the finale on Saturday and then be ready for the playoff opener. He started all 14 playoff games last spring.

4. One thing the Caps need to deal with if they do face Ottawa: The return of star defenseman Erik Karlsson from his 70-percent torn Achilles’ tendon sustained on Feb. 13. His season was thought to be over, but because the cut didn’t slice through the whole tendon Karlsson was able to make a miraculous recovery. Oates wondered before the game if we’d see the same Karlsson right off the bat. Maybe not. The speed wasn’t necessarily there. He was still pretty damn good and was on the ice for 27:11.

“I felt okay. Did battle some issues out there, and didn’t feel quite as comfortable as I used to, but overall I think it was a solid game,” Karlsson said. “I still have to work through some mistakes and clean those up…[But] when you’ve been away for a long time and the guys that are out there are up to speed, it’s a fast game and pucks are flying everywhere and bodies and it’s just a little bit to get used to, I guess, but I’m going to have to figure that one out.”

After the game Karlsson had a massive bag of ice taped to the back of his left leg. Yet he had the primary assist on both Ottawa goals. This is a player who can take over a game or a playoff series even at less than full strength and he makes the Senators – already a stingy group – even more difficult to crack thanks to his ability to skate the puck out of trouble.

“They got Karlsson back. We saw a little of what he can bring tonight,” Oates said. “They’re a good hockey team and if we end up playing them, we’ll be ready for them.”

5. So what’s the deal with Ottawa? They Caps played a nice first two periods there in the first meeting between the two teams on Jan. 29. But they blew a 2-0 lead that night in a loss and are now 0-2-1 in three games against them. Granted the final scores have been 3-2, 3-1 and 2-1 in overtime. It’s not like the Senators are blowing them out. But if the two teams should meet in the playoffs you’d like to have had a win under your belt. Some thoughts from various Caps:

Aaron Volpatti: “They’re well-coached and they’re good in their systems. We’re going to have to maybe simplify things if we do meet up with them. They give us a little bit of a hard time on the lines and in the neutral zone. If we just simplify a few things, we’ll be fine.

Ovechkin: “I think we’re getting to the zone, but if we stay there maybe 10 times we have only three or four shots. We have to create more chances out there, especially against that kind of team. We don’t use ‘D’ a lot today, tomorrow probably going to watch the game, see what’s happening and we have to do better next time.”

Oates: “Yeah, they’re stingy. It is frustrating when you’re not getting many chances. They got good ‘D’, a good goalie. Yeah, it was not the most fun game to play, probably not the most fun to watch. But that’s the way a team like that is, and that’s kind of the way we were at the end of last year.”

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14

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