WASHINGTON — Considering how they started, it’s quite the achievement that the Washington Capitals got to the playoffs with time to spare.
The Capitals clinched the Southeast Division title Tuesday night, completing a stark turnaround in a lockout-shortened season with a 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
The Capitals blew a two-goal lead, survived a pair of replay reviews and exhaled deeply when defensemen John Erskine cleared two shots off the goal line. They also had to kill off a power play with a one-goal lead late in the game, but they held to win for the 10th time in 11 games and secure a postseason berth with two games remaining.
Alex Ovechkin scored his league-leading 31st goal — an empty-netter in the final minute — and Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera, Nicklas Backstrom and Mathieu Perreault also scored, while Braden Holtby made 24 saves. The Capitals were next-to-last in the Eastern Conference as recently as March 21, but Ovechkin and first-year coach Adam Oates have led them to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, a run that includes five Southeast titles.
As the winner of the division — albeit the weakest division in the NHL — Washington will leapfrog several teams with better records and enter the playoffs as the conference’s No. 3 seed.
The loss keeps the Jets in ninth place in the East, one spot away from the playoffs but with slim chances of moving up because they have only one game remaining. The Ottawa Senators, in eighth place at the start of Tuesday’s play, have three games left.
Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler and Nik Antropov scored for the Jets, who had won six of seven but were playing the second half of a road back-to-back after beating the Buffalo Sabres on Monday.
Anxious to put an end to the division race, the Capitals dominated the early shifts and got the payoff when Hendricks dug the puck out of the boards and beat Ondrej Pavelec from a tight angle. Chimera made it 2-0 in the first when he lifted a rebound high into the net.
But the score would have been tied if not for Erskine, who cleared Bryan Little’s shot off the line when Holtby was caught out of position and later arrived just in time to get his stick on a bouncing puck that had dribbled down the goaltender’s back on a tip by Aaron Gagnon. The puck was some 90 percent across the line — but not all the way, and the no-goal call was upheld by video review.
The Jets did pull even in the second period, with Kane netting on a power play just 16 seconds after the intermission and Wheeler scoring on a pass from Antropov after a turnover in the Capitals’ zone.
It took just 37 seconds for the Capitals to regain the lead, with Backstrom’s right skate neatly redirecting a centering pass from Ovechkin. The replay review determined that Backstrom didn’t use a deliberate kicking motion, and the goal was upheld.
Perreault doubled the lead by putting in a rebound late in the second period, but Antropov beat Holtby stick-side with 8:10 remaining in the third to pull the Jets within one.
Perrault was sent to the penalty box for high sticking with 5:16 remaining, giving the Capitals killed off the penalty without allowing a shot on goal. Ovechkin capped the celebration with the empty-netter, prompting chants of “M-V-P!” throughout the sold-out arena.
NOTES: Antropov returned after missing eight games with a lower body injury. Jets F Kyle Wellwood was out with a significant injury to his right hand from blocking a shot during Monday’s win at Buffalo. … Ovechkin set an NHL record with his goal, although it’s one that probably deserves an asterisk. It was his 13th in the month of April, an accomplishment made easier because the lockout-modified schedule is extending the regular season deeper into the month than usual. The previous record of 12 was set by Mario Lemieux in 1993 and tied by Winnipeg’s Alex Zhamnov in 1995.
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