With their 11th straight win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-2, on Thursday night the Washington Capitals have clinched the second seed in the Eastern Conference and will be get home ice in at least the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, should they keep advancing. In addition, with the victory the Caps now have a 50-23-8 record for 108 points, the most in team history (the 1985-86 team had 107 points in just 80 games).
This win rendered Saturday night’s final regular season contest in Florida meaningless for Washington and it won’t have any implications for the Panthers (beat Atlanta 3-2 on Thursday) either as they were eliminated from playoff contention when the Rangers won and Montreal gained a point on Thursday night. The Rangers and Habs are tied for 7th place in the Eastern Conference so the Caps still don’t know who they will face in the first round of the playoffs, but it will be one of those two teams.
This game started poorly for the Caps as Tampa scored just 36 seconds in on a quick shot by rookie Steven Stamkos (22nd of season). Stamkos outraced forward Tomas Fleischmann to a puck that was sent into the slot area after defenseman Brian Pothier was beaten to the puck by Tampa. The other defenseman on the ice, John Erskine, was out of position on the right wing boards. Mistakes like these by Washington need to be gone come Game 1 of next week’s playoffs.
For nearly the next seven minutes this game was all Tampa as they outshot the Caps 11-1 but Jose Theodore (22 saves on 24 shots) was very solid in goal to keep the guys in white in it until they could get their legs going. Finally a rush up the ice by Alexander Ovechkin drew a Matt Smaby holding penalty and Evgeny Artyukhin compounded the miscue by mouthing off to referees Don Koharski (working the last game in his 32 year career!) and Wes McCauley to draw an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
It only took the Caps 26 seconds to tie this game up on the 5 on 3 power play as Brooks Laich put in a layup in front of Tampa goalie Karri Ramo from Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green just over nine minutes into the contest. After that the game turned Washington’s way and in the second period they appeared to break this one open with two goals in 31 seconds as Laich got his 22nd goal of the year in the slot on a beautiful top shelf wrister and then Dave Steckel buried his eighth goal of the year going to the net and receiving a great centering feed from Matt Bradley.
Tampa then put up a fight in the latter half of the second period but as the game went to the 3rd period the Caps really dominated play again. However, that is where Ramo (29 saves on 32 shots) kept his team alive thwarting several good chances by Washington, including numerous Ovechkin shots (11 on the night but he had 0 points). The great goaltending by Ramo would pay off as Matt Pettinger scored on one of the five shots the Lightning had in the final period with just over 7 minutes to go in the contest (Caps outshot them 15-5) giving Tampa hope for their first win against the Caps under Coach Bruce Boudreau.
But Washington was strong the rest of the way and Green sealed this one with his 31st goal of the season into the empty net with just five seconds left. Green had a goal and two assists and now has an astounding 31 goals and 42 assists (73 points) on the season in just 67 games! Can you say Norris Trophy worthy?
As for Theodore, this was the 500th game of his career and he is now 215-213-30-44 overall to go two games over .500. He had not been over .500 in his career since being 5-4-2 back in 1997. The 30 represents the number of ties in his career and 44 is combined overtime and shootout losses. #60 is 32-16-5 with a .901 save percentage this year for the Caps but he is 24-10-4 since December 23rd.
There isn’t much more to report on this one as the Caps appeared to come out unscathed injury wise in the contest. Tom Poti (groin) and Donald Brashear (knee) missed the game but Poti is due back for game one of the playoffs. The team is unsure on Brashear but he may be needed to go against George Laraque if the Caps get Montreal or shut up pesky Sean Avery or minimize tough guy Colton Orr in the event that New York comes to the Verizon Center next week. The Caps won’t know their opponent until Sunday evening after the Flyers-Rangers game unless the Canadiens lose in regulation to the Penguins on Saturday night. A Penguin regulation win on Hockey Night in Canada gets Washington a series with New York.