WASHINGTON -- Trust in the system, in the coaching staff and in each other coupled with a bond that developed through adversity helped the Washington Capitals accomplish something Tuesday night that looked impossible one month ago.
They're heading to the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Southeast Division champions.
The same team that started the season with two wins in its first 13 games and entered play on March 21 in 14th place, seven points removed from a playoff spot and nine points off the division lead, won its fifth division title in the past six years and locked up the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference by beating the Winnipeg Jets 5-3 on Tuesday at Verizon Center.
Braden Holtby made 24 saves and the Capitals got goals from three of their four lines, including one each from third-liners Jason Chimera and Mathieu Perreault. Alex Ovechkin capped it with an empty-net goal, his League-leading 31st of the season, which sent the crowd of 18,506 into the streets celebrating the end of a stunning regular-season turnaround and the start of what they hope is a long playoff run.
"We kept fighting, kept battling," Ovechkin said. "We stuck to the system, stuck together. That's the most important thing. Of course it was a situation when everybody was struggling and everybody was pissed off, but we fight through it and now you can see the results."
The Capitals are 14-2-1 in their past 17 games dating back to March 21, when they played the first of two in a row in Winnipeg. They won both by a combined 10-1 and haven't looked back in taking over the division lead from the Jets, who play their last game of the regular season Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens and need a lot of help to get into the playoffs.
"We have to win to at least get in the top eight so after that the season still has some days," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "But we don't hold the cards anymore."
The Capitals took care of that, starting with those back-to-back wins at MTS Centre on March 21 and 22.
Ovechkin combined for three goals and five points in those games, starting a stretch in which he has 10 multi-point efforts and 29 points in the past 17 games. Nicklas Backstrom, who scored off an Ovechkin pass Tuesday night, has 25 points over the same 17 games. Holtby has started 15 of them and won 12.
"Our best players have been our best players," said Troy Brouwer, who has nine goals in the past 17 games after scoring 10 in the first 28.
They all scored Tuesday, with Hendricks setting the tone 3:12 into the first period and Chimera making it 2-0 shortly before the first intermission. Both goals were scored off an aggressive forecheck, something the Capitals planned to utilize Tuesday because the Jets were coming off a game Monday in Buffalo and have several players, including Kyle Wellwood and Zach Bogosian, sidelined with injuries.
"We know what it's like to be beat down, beat up," Hendricks said. "We knew we could take advantage of it and we did."
Credit for the Capitals' unlikely division championship goes to the play of defenseman John Erskine, who has been a 20-minute-a-night rock this season after being nothing more than a bit player last season.
He rewarded coach Adam Oates' faith in him Tuesday night when he dove through the crease to stop Bryan Little's point-blank shot toward the open net 4:12 into the game and later in the first period swatted the puck off the goal line after Aaron Gagnon's shot climbed over Holtby's shoulder and came perilously close to going in.
"He's our third goalie right now," Ovechkin joked.
Really, though, there is no joking about the Capitals anymore.
There was early in the season, when it looked like they couldn't get out of their own way as they tried and tried to adjust to all the changes Oates was trying to make only to fail and fail and fail some more.
Oates stayed positive, upbeat. He kept showing the players video clips of what they were doing right and never yelled when they did something wrong. He earned their trust and in return they became a team, the closest team Washington has had in quite some time, according to Backstrom.
"It's good when you have that kind of person behind you," Ovechkin said of Oates. "You want to win for him and you want to play for him."
It stayed that way in good times and in bad, through both prosperity and adversity, such as the kind they faced in the second period Tuesday.
Evander Kane scored a power-play goal 16 seconds into the period and Blake Wheeler tied it at 2-2 with a one-timer past Holtby at 14:11. However, the Capitals built their lead back up to 4-2 before the intermission on goals by Backstrom and Perreault.
Nik Antropov made sure Washington wouldn't have it easy when he scored with 8:10 left in the third period, but the Capitals answered with one of their best penalty kills of the season after Perreault was whistled for high-sticking at 14:44. The Jets didn't get a shot on goal; they barely even challenged Washington's 28th-ranked penalty kill.
"Huge kill and it didn't look in doubt at any point, which is great," Oates said.
Washington applied relentless, aggressive pressure in the final three minutes, so much so that Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec couldn't even get out of his net for the extra skater until 50 seconds were left. He started looking toward the bench with 1:30 remaining.
Ovechkin finally sealed it with his slap shot into the empty net.
"If you're going to win you've gotta stick together," Backstrom said. "You've gotta work for each other, push each other and that's why I think we've been successful."
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