Cumberland Times-News

April 23, 2013

Capitals clinch Southeast with 5-3 win over Jets


Cumberland Times-News

— ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Surely, if the Washington Capitals were going to make the playoffs, it would come down to the wire. Their start was so terrible that even an optimistic die-hard would figure that, with the right breaks, perhaps they could steal a berth in the final game of the regular season.

Yet here they are, postseason-bound with two games to spare, quite the achievement for Alex Ovechkin and first-year coach Adam Oates. Tuesday night’s 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets clinched the Southeast Division for the Capitals, who were next-to-last in the Eastern Conference as recently as March 21.

“I remember 20 games ago looking at the schedule,” said Mathieu Perreault, one of five Capitals to score a goal Tuesday. “Like, ‘Man, we’re probably going to have to go 16-4 to get in’ — and basically did it. It almost looked impossible if you look back 20 games, but this team has got so much character, and they found a way to do it.”

If the Capitals win their final two, they will indeed finish with 16 wins in 20 games, but that would be gravy at this point. They’re in the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, a run that includes five Southeast titles. As a bonus, they will leapfrog several teams with better records and enter the playoffs as the conference’s No. 3 seed for winning their division, even if it is the weakest division in the NHL.

“We had a lousy start,” Oates said. “And I don’t think many of us thought we would come this far. But we obviously put some really good hockey together, and the guys have grown and it’s obviously a good feeling right now.”

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.

Ovechkin scored his league-leading 31st goal — an empty-netter in the final minute — and Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera and Nicklas Backstrom also scored. Braden Holtby made 24 saves for the Capitals.

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. They trail the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators by one point, but the Rangers have two games left and the Senators have three.

“It was basically our Game 7 in the playoffs,” said Nik Antropov, who scored Winnipeg’s third goal. “And it’s frustrating to lose that way.”

Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler also 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.

“We played too cute,” Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said. “There was no way we were going to be able to match their skill level and to play the way that they played. We had to do some things that to me that we didn’t do.”

Hendricks and Chimera gave the Capitals a 2-0 lead after the first period, 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.

“He’s our third goalie right now,” Ovechkin said with a smile.

The Jets did pull even in the second period when Kane and Wheeler scored, but it took just 37 seconds for the Capitals to regain the lead when Backstrom’s right skate neatly redirected 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 whistled for high sticking with 5:16 remaining, but the Capitals killed off the penalty without allowing a shot. Ovechkin capped the celebration with the empty-netter, prompting chants of “M-V-P!” throughout the sold-out arena.

“The way we started, there were a lot of doubters,” Hendricks said. “Our fans were against us a little bit, the media was hard on us a little bit. But we came and did what we set out to do.”



Sabres 4, Penguins 2

PITTSBURGH — At least Pittsburgh doesn’t have to worry about facing Buffalo in the playoffs. At the moment, the Sabres are the one team in the Eastern Conference that has found a way to beat the Penguins at home.

Thomas Vanek scored twice, Ryan Miller stopped 40 shots and Buffalo edged Pittsburgh 4-2 on Tuesday night for its second win at Consol Energy Center in as many visits.

Steve Ott gave the Sabres the lead for good when he batted a rebound out of the air past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with 2:34 left and Vanek added an empty-netter in the final minute.

Jochen Hecht also scored for the Sabres, who never trailed while snapping the Penguins’ seven-game winning streak. Pittsburgh has still won 22 of its last 25 games, but two of the losses have come to Buffalo, which is already out of postseason contention.

“Obviously we wanted to be in the playoffs, but that’s not going to happen but guys want to make sure they finish strong,” Buffalo coach Ron Rolston said. “Tonight was a good step in that direction.”

Chris Kunitz scored his 22nd goal for Pittsburgh and Jarome Iginla scored in his fourth straight game but it wasn’t enough. Fleury made 29 saves but failed to pick up his 23rd win.

The Penguins have already clinched the top seed in the East when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin next week and are in the process of getting healthy. The results against the Sabres were mixed at best.

Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin assisted on Iginla’s goal to pick up a point in his return after missing four games with a lingering shoulder injury but defenseman Brooks Orpik left after the first period with a lower-body injury.

Orpik will be re-evaluated on Wednesday, not exactly great news for a team already captain Sidney Crosby (broken jaw) and forward James Neal (concussion) along with defenseman Paul Martin (hand injury).

“We’ve been pretty physical lately and we’ve been skating well and I don’t think we did that quite as much,” Iginla said. “We gave up a few too many chances but at the same time we could have still found a way to get a better result.”

Still, the Penguins seemed to have things under control after Iginla tied the score 11:02 into the third period. Miller, playing in his 499th and perhaps last game with the Sabres, kept Buffalo in it until the Sabres finally went ahead for good behind some deft hand-eye coordination by Ott.

Fleury had just turned aside a shot from Mark Pysyk when the puck fluttered off his glove and out in front of the net, where Ott smacked it out of the air. Officials spent more than a minute reviewing the score to see if Ott’s stick was too high. The call stood and Vanek threw in an empty-netter to give the Sabres their second straight win over Pittsburgh and a second win over an Eastern Conference contender in the past week.

Buffalo edged the Boston Bruins last Wednesday but then followed it up with losses to the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets, the kind of inconsistent play that will keep the Sabres out of the postseason and could lead to some significant rebuilding.

“If you look at our whole season really, against top teams we played good hockey and against I’m not going to say lower teams but teams like the Florida and Tampa, we struggled to get wins and ultimately that’s our season right there,” Vanek said.

Pittsburgh appeared energized by the return of the league’s reigning MVP and dominated the early stages with Malkin looking in top form despite playing the first time in nearly two weeks. Buzzing the net with regularity, Malkin’s teammates seemed intent on setting him up for his ninth goal of the season.

Instead, the Sabres, playing for little, struck first.

Vanek put Buffalo up 12:49 into the game with a one-timer from between the circles thanks to a pretty feed from behind the net by Cody Hodgson.

The momentum lasted all of 20 seconds, or as long as Kunitz needed to take a pass from Brandon Sutter then wrist a shot off Miller’s glove and into the net to tie the score.

The Sabres moved back in front when Hecht beat Fleury with a shot from just inside the left faceoff dot 6:11 into the third. The Penguins, with nothing to play for other than an outside chance of catching the Blackhawks for the league’s best record, appeared ready to end a three-game in four-day stretch until Kris Letang found Iginla standing by himself at the top of the left circle.

Iginla responded with a slap shot that powered its way by Miller for Iginla’s fifth goal with Pittsburgh since coming over in a trade from Calgary last month. Buffalo, however, refused to buckle.

“We’ve been pretty physical lately and we’ve been skating well and I don’t think we did that quite as much,” Iginla said. “We gave up a few too many chances but at the same time we could have still found a way to get a better result.”