It’s almost too good to be true, this opportunity that presents itself for the Caps when they face Southeast Division pursuer Winnipeg tonight at Verizon Center.
Washington opened its lockout-shortened home season 13 weeks ago tonight by losing to the Jets, the initial disappointment of a 2-8-1 start that threatened to snap the Caps’ playoff streak at five straight seasons.
But after thumping the Canadiens in Montreal this past Saturday night after Winnipeg had lost in a shootout to the visiting New York Islanders hours earlier, the Caps extended their lead over the Jets to three points with just three games remaining apiece.
So if Washington beats Winnipeg tonight and takes a three-point lead with just two games left, to one for the Jets, it claims the Southeast title and the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
That would cap – pun intended – a remarkable rise from the bottom of the conference standings during which the Caps have gone 23-10-1. Included in those two months of stellar play is an incredible 14-1 record against division foes Winnipeg, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay with Washington owning a 65-30 scoring advantage. Since losing the opener to the Jets by a 4-2 count, the Caps have blistered them by a combined 13-1 in three matchups.
Clearly, the Caps are the Southeast’s dominant team. However, they’re also likely to be the only member of the division in the playoffs. That’s bad news because Washington is just 6-13 against the other seven teams from the East with more or as many points as it has: Pittsburgh, Montreal, Boston, Toronto, the New York Islanders, Ottawa and the New York Rangers. On the flip side, the Caps are 5-2 against those teams over the last month after previously going 1-11.
Washington has won 14 of its past 16 games overall, losing only 5-4 in Philadelphia in overtime after holding a 4-1 lead in the third period and 3-1 in Ottawa last Thursday in a game that would have been tied in the final minute if not for an errant pass by Braden Holtby that gave the Senators an empty net at which to shoot.
That was a rare mistake by the 23-year-old Holtby, who after a slow start has built on his playoff stardom as a late call-up from the minors last spring to establish himself as Washington’s No. 1 goalie.
Mike Green (21 points in 32 games) finally shook off a series of seemingly never-ending injuries to re-establish himself as one of the NHL’s most offensive defensemen. Mike Ribeiro (34 assists, fourth in the league), acquired last June from Dallas, has joined Nicklas Backstrom (39, third) to give rookie coach Adam Oates two sweet-passing centers on the NHL’s top power play.
Oates, the NHL’s only new coach who hadn’t been in command of a team or been behind his team’s bench before this season, also deserves plenty of credit for keeping the Caps together during the ugly start as they learned his system on the fly. Only 12 of the 18 skaters who were in uniform for the home opener likely will be so again tonight with Steve Oleksy, Aaron Volpatti and Jack Hillen seemingly arriving out of nowhere as Brooks Laich couldn’t stay healthy, Roman Hamrlik gave out at 38 and Tomas Kundratek proved not quite ready at 23.
But as has been the case for nearly a decade, as Alex Ovechkin goes, so go the Caps. The 27-year-old Russian sniper, who averaged 54 goals during his first five seasons, was having a third straight down year – he averaged just 35 goals the past two seasons — with just nine goals and 20 points during the first 25 games as he adjusted from the left wing to the right side while Washington went 9-15-1.
Ovechkin had a goal and an assist in a 3-2 victory the next game at Carolina. He hasn’t stopped scoring since. The two-time MVP poured in 21 goals and 14 assists in the past 20 games as the Caps went 16-3-1.
With 30 goals (a 55-goal pace over a full season), Ovechkin is on the verge of leading the league for a third time, a feat topped only by the NHL’s best – Brett Hull, Phil Esposito, Rocket Richard, Wayne Gretzky – as well as 1930s star Charlie Conacher.
A little over a month ago, it seemed like wait until next year for the Caps. Now the playoffs beckon again. Given their current tear and their superb play last spring against the Bruins and Rangers, who knows what Washington might achieve in May?
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin