Alexander Ovechkin put on a show on Saturday night at Capital One Arena, but despite 18 shot attempts, the Gr8 notched only two goals in a 5-3 win over the New Jersey Devils to finish the season with 49 tallies. Braden Holtby stopped 23 of 26 shots, although there was some very loose defense by his club, at times, to earn the victory.
The Caps finish the season at 49-26-7 (105 points) and will face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which could start as early as Wednesday. Coach John Tortorella’s team rested several key players, such as Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Artemi Panarin, Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, and Sergei Bobrovsky in their season finale against the Predators in Nashville. It is pretty apparent that CBus much preferred facing the Caps than the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins and now they have their wish.
As for the Devils, they fall to the second wild card spot and will face the winner of the Atlantic Division (either Boston or Tampa). New Jersey rested some key players on Saturday, as well; including star forward Taylor Hall and former Cap Marcus Johansson. The other Metropolitan Division matchup will be the battle of Pennsylvania.
Nicklas Backstrom, Michal Kempny, and Andre Burakovsky scored Washington’s other three goals, while rookie forward Shane Gersich notched his first ever NHL point, assisting on Kempny’s point blast that made it 3-1.
The following are my thoughts and analysis of the triumph on Fan Appreciation Night.
So Close – Ovi had a breakaway in period three that would have given him 50 for the season, but he shot high on Cory Schneider. The last 10 minutes or so were basically all about trying to get Alexander the Great his 50th tally, but with New Jersey covering him closely and not pulling their goalie, it was a tough task. Still, Alex got off some good shots and came oh so close to getting the big 5-0, once again, but Ovechkin still locked up his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy. Simply put, the Russian Machine is an amazing player that had the fans on the edge of their seats or standing. This was a meaningless hockey game for the Caps, but Ovi delivered for those in attendance. For the night, he logged 21:00, had eight shots on goal and was +1. For the campaign, Ovechkin had 355 shots on net and his shooting percentage was 13.8%, but that stat should really count all shot attempts, not just those on net. His 32 even strength goals at age 32 is remarkable. Ovechkin became just the second player since the 1967-68 expansion era to lead the NHL in goals at the age of 32 or older (Phil Esposito).
Pond Hockey – Since Washington clinched the Metro division in Pittsburgh on Sunday night, Washington has played three meaningless affairs. The Caps have done some good things in those tilts, they’ve won 2 of 3, but the games have been nothing like we’ll see next week in the post season. These contests these past six days have been wide open with very little hitting (hits were 15 to 10 for Washington against New Jersey). It’s clear that the Capitals players were saving their bodies, and rightly so, for the grind that starts on Wednesday. The first period against New Jersey was really loose, but again, the game just didn’t matter.
Holtbeast – As mentioned in the opening paragraph, defense appeared optional, at times, on Saturday night. All three Devils goals were converted due to poor Washington coverage. Holtby had to make some tough stops in this affair and he looks ready for the post season. Whether Coach Barry Trotz and Goaltending Coach Scott Murray go with #70 or Philipp Grubauer in game one remains to be seen, but given Holtby’s record against Columbus, I’m thinking he’ll get the nod in the cage. Holtby went 34-16-4 behind a blue line that featured two rookies for the first 50 or so games.
Backy Got Back – Backstrom went 21 games without a goal during one stretch this season so it’s incredible that he finished with 21 tallies along with his 50 assists. #19 is such a good two way player and you know he’s going to bring it every night. Over the last eight games, he’s had two goals and 14 assists. Nicky logged 19:14 centering Burakovsky and Brett Connolly since the Osh Babe was given the night off to get closer to 100% health.
New Kid in Town – Kempny has been mostly paired with John Carlson since he came over at the trade deadline from Chicago for a draft choice. Against the Devils, #6 had his best game yet with a goal and a helper while going +4. Kempny brings speed and puck moving ability that was needed on the blue line. Michal has only 3 points in 22 games with the Caps and two of them came on Saturday night.
Pay The Man 2 – Carlson earned his 68th point with his assist on Backstrom’s goal and he leads all NHL defensemen in points. He was also +4 and brought his plus/minus back to even steven. #74 is an unrestricted free agent this summer and he’s going to get paid well. There are reports the salary cap could go as high as $82 Million and if that’s the case, Washington has a better chance of keeping him. But that is a story for the summer and right now the Caps need John, who is a big game player, to perform well at both ends of the rink. Carly is an ice time eater and he plays in all situations. There aren’t many blue liners around the league that can do the things he does.
For Whom the Bell Tolls – Evgeny Kuznetsov finished with a career high 83 points in 79 games and he has really become a dominant player. Kuzy scored 27 goals this season and when he is unpredictable from a pass vs. shoot perspective, he is very difficult to stop. #92 went 11-7 in draws on Saturday in 19:19 of ice time. If he continues to take shots when he is in the high danger areas, especially between the circles, the Capitals will be a hard team to defeat. The dynamic Russian forward is really the key guy who must be on each night for the Caps to be successful in the post season.
Facing the Cannon – I’ll have more on the Blue Jackets as we move into the week, but this is going to be a very physical and tough matchup. Coach Tortorella’s team is a system squad that blocks shots and likes to throw pucks and bodies at the opposing team’s goalie. Washington’s blue line and forwards are really going to have to amp their game up to deal with all of the traffic they will try to apply on the Caps goalie. Every matchup is tough in the post season and as Coach Barry Trotz often states, the difference between two teams in the standings is often the result of one team having a bad week or short stretch. Columbus totaled just eight points less than the Caps. This is going to be a hard series and Assistant Coach Todd Reirden’s d-men will have to play well against some big guys such as Brandon Dubinsky and Foligno.
Closing Time – The triumph over the Devils slams the regular season book shut for a Caps team that many predicted would not win the division or even make the playoffs. That was not the case from this Capitals historian, blogger, and radio man. Despite the personnel losses, I still predicted a 100 to 105 point season. General Manager Brian MacLellan built this team up the middle of the ice with strong goaltending and Coach Trotz and his staff did a GREAT job of getting several players to really improve. Eight players had career years offensively and this team took first place despite having four rookies regularly in the lineup for the first 50 games. Tom Wilson had his best season as a pro and he’s now a first line beast. He will be a real key in the post season because he opens up space for the Caps up front.
Notes: The full playoff schedule will be announced on Sunday…T.J. Oshie, Jay Beagle, and Travis Boyd didn’t play on Saturday due to injury or illness…the Caps were 32-22 on draws. In addition to #92’s success, Backstrom was 9-7 and Lars Eller was 6-3…Dmitry Orlov led the Capitals in ice time with 23:48.