Three gritty goals. One pretty goal. One empty-netter.
It’s a ratio the Capitals will have to remember from here on out, because it’s almost “that” time of year, when making highlight-reel shots usually means you’re on the golf course.
The Capitals aren’t ready for that. Goaltender Braden Holtby was not particularly sharp through 60 minutes Tuesday, but neither was the entire Winnipeg Jets’ roster. Final score? Rookie head coach 1, sophomore head coach 0.
But that win, frankly, has been a long time in the making.
To score in the playoffs, you go to the net. And that’s what Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault and company did for three of the Capitals’ goals.
Another Capitals goal came because Winnipeg broke a cardinal rule: do not underestimate Nicklas Backstrom. The Jets played Ovechkin coming down the right wing too strongly, and it left Backstrom right where he needed to be—open by the goal crease.
It was a game where redemption came quickly for Washington. The Backstrom goal came less than a minute after Winnipeg tied it at two. The penalty kill—which was 28th in the league going into the game—wound up with the biggest win of the season so far as they fought off a high-sticking minor taken by Mathieu Perreault late in the third in what was, before Ovechkin’s eventual empty-netter, a one-goal game.
John Erskine, meanwhile, brought out his best Superman impression. At one point in the first, a Mike Ribeiro stumble gave Winnipeg an excellent look at the net and delivered shot on goal that Holtby regurgitated for a juicy rebound, then went out so far that the space in front of the Capitals’ net yawned. That set Winnipeg up with an almost sure-fire goal until Erskine dove across the opening to block the puck.
Meanwhile, every Capital had a shot on goal except for Marcus Johansson, who nevertheless got an assist.
It all boiled down to a 5-3 win, a division title, and a very happy Verizon Center crowd.
For those of you who were waiting for me to eat the verbal equivalent of a five-course meal since the Capitals made the playoffs, I’ve eaten it. I’m not ashamed of what I wrote then, either. Frankly, I don’t think any guy in the locker room would say I was unfair or inaccurate or didn’t give as complete a picture as they allowed us to see. It was sound analysis based on how the Capitals were playing and what I gleaned from reporting—and I will remind you that, through March, things looked extremely bleak. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone mention a “must-win” game that month, I could have bought out Ovechkin’s contract.
And because I am conscientious about my reporting, I’ve done my hardest to figure out what I missed this time around. I do think the nucleus was what I wrote about last time on Oates’ “be professional” philosophy, because that helped change the culture and tenure of games. I think the Capitals got a lot of help from some Southeast peers. I think Oates’ system covers a multitude of sins. I think next time I’ll listen more carefully to Oates when he says his guys are playing well—even if the results don’t show up for longer than it takes Justin Bieber to grow a beard. And it remains to be seen if the roster as currently assembled can take the Capitals any deeper than in recent history.
But I think, in the end, each person on the Capitals’ bench decided to start holding himself accountable, if he hadn’t already. And those different personal epiphanies is something you’ll almost never be able to predict fully on a roster-sized basis.