Saturday night's game against a depleted but determined Tampa Bay Lightning team resulted in a 5-3 win for the Capitals, a win that moves them to the 100-point mark for the season and clinches their ninth playoff berth in the last decade.
For Washington it wasn't close to a perfect game, but there were signs that the Caps may be getting their collective game closer to where they'd like it to be as the playoffs draw near.
The Caps were disciplined. Washington faced only one shorthanded situation on the night, while the Caps drew three penalties of their own. Each of those led to a Washington goal, although the Caps were officially 1-for-2 on the power play for the game.
Video: Caps clinch playoff berth behind Oshie's hat trick
Speaking of the power play, it looked great. Puck movement, entries, retrievals, precision passing and finish, all the elements necessary for extra-man success were evident and prominent.
Perhaps most notably and most importantly for a team that had been limited to two or fewer goals in seven of its previous eight games, the Caps seemed to have more swagger to their game in the attack zone. When Washington uses is combination of size and skill to manufacture dominant puck possession shifts in the offensive zone, the payoff often comes later in the game, and that was the case on Saturday night in Tampa. The Caps broke open a 2-2 game with a pair of goals early in the third and got out of town with two points in what coach Barry Trotz termed a "must-win" game.
Lastly, getting Andre Burakovsky back in the lineup made a big difference. That's no slight to Jakub Vrana, who filled in admirably during Burakovsky's absence. But Burakovsky has the advantage of nearly 200 games in the league, and he was clearly champing at the bit to get back into the lineup after a 15-game absence because of a hand injury.
"Early, we weren't throwing enough pucks [at the net]," says Trotz. "Andre was guilty of it; he had a good look probably his first two shifts, but he was looking to pass it off. But as the game went on, we started putting pucks in play, and I thought it broke down some structure.
Video: Coach Trotz on clinching a playoff spot
"We were able to retrieve some pucks and then move it around. I think it wore [on them] as the game went on. I didn't see their [defensemen] jumping up as much. We didn't see some of their top players who had to defend for long periods have as much juice. That's the eroding effect that you want when you're putting pucks in play."
Since returning from a fruitless trip to California, the Caps have earned five of a possible six points (2-0-1). They'll play the next three at home before hitting the road for their longest trip of the season, a five-gamer spread over nine days.
Three For 77 - T.J. Oshie notched his first hat trick as a member of the Capitals and the third of his NHL career on Saturday night. With the three goals, Oshie has 29 on the season, establishing a single-season career best for the second season in a row since joining the Capitals.
Video: WSH@TBL: Oshie records hat trick in win vs. Bolts
Oshie arrived in the District with 21 goals as his career high; he netted those for St. Louis in 2013-14. He scored 26 for the Caps in 2015-16 and now has a team-leading 29 goals in 2016-17, this despite missing 13 games.
"It's huge," says Oshie. "I've been working pretty hard, but like you saw tonight, a lot of these [goals] are hats off to my linemates; two empty-netters and one where the goalie wasn't even in the net.
"We've got a great team here. I've been fortunate to be at the end of the scoresheet a couple of times, but more importantly, we're getting our game back to where we want it to be, so it feels good."
Nick The Stick - Caps center Nicklas Backstrom is in the midst of yet another sublime season, and he had four assists in Saturday's game. Backstrom also drew a tripping penalty early in the third, and John Carlson ended up scoring the eventual game-winner while the Caps were on the delayed portion of that call.
Backstrom has had three or more assists in a game four times this season, twice this week and 35 times in his career.
Video: Caps talk after playoff-clinching victory in Tampa
With 75 points (21 goals, 54 assists) on the season, Backstrom is fifth in the league and is just five points off the league-leading pace currently set by Edmonton's Connor McDavid. Backstrom is one assist off McDavid's total of 55 for the league lead in that department. Backstrom led the NHL with 60 assists in 2014-15.
He's Back - Burakovsky's return leaves the Caps at peak health with 11 games remaining, and it enabled Trotz to dress his most optimal group of 12 forwards for the first time in over a month.
Burakovsky looked a little tentative early on, when he seemed to be looking to pass more than shoot, but as the game wore on he began to pull the trigger frequently. He finished the night with seven shots on net (he had no shots on net in the first period and five in the second) and 11 shot attempts in 15:12 worth of ice time, and he supplied the primary assist on Justin Williams' 20th goal of the season, the tally that put Washington on top for good early in the third period.
Video: WSH@TBL: Williams deflects in Niskanen's hard slapper
"I felt really good," says Burakovsky. "It's been a long time since my legs have been this good. I think I was flying, I was creating chances. I've been working very hard at Camp Nemo, working really hard in the gym and in the ice. I'm in phenomenal shape right now, so it felt really good, and it felt good to be back."
"I think Camp Nemo has been really good to him," joked Backstrom of Burakovsky's month under the tutelage of strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish. "He has been skating a lot, so he had some good legs."
Burakovsky has 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in his last 15 games. More importantly, the Capitals are now 18-1-2 when they dress the dozen forwards they dressed for Saturday's game in Tampa.
"He was excited and he was ready to go," says Trotz, "so I'm really happy for Andre, because he played a lot of minutes."
Double Sawbuck - Williams became the fifth Capitals forward to reach the 20-goal plateau this season, and he has reached that level for the second time in as many seasons since coming to Washington, and for the sixth time in his NHL career.
Along with the Winnipeg Jets, the Caps are one of only two NHL teams with as many as 20-goal scorers in 2016-17.
Man Down - Marcus Johansson supplied the pretty primary helper on Oshie's first goal of the game at 3:44 of the first period, but Johansson left the game midway through the first frame and did not return.
"I think it's probably just a little bit of a flu bug," says Trotz of Johansson's absence. "Obviously he went for warm-up. He came in and he played a couple of shifts and then the trainer said that he had to go back to the dressing room for a while. He wasn't feeling very well. I think it's just the flu bug. That's unfortunate; we could have used him tonight. But other guys got an opportunity and they stepped up and did a real good job."
Johansson skated just five shifts totaling 2:53 on the night.
Down On The Farm - The AHL Hershey Bears spent Saturday night at home, hosting the Hartford Wolf Pack at Giant Center. Hershey got four goals from Paul Carey and skated away with a 6-4 victory.
Carey scored the game's first goal - his 20th - and also netted the last one into a vacant Hartford cage late in the contest. Hershey also got goals from Christian Thomas - his 24th of the season, on a Hershey power play - and Riley Barber, who notched his ninth goal of the campaign.
Chris Bourque and Travis Boyd each had three assists for the Bears, and Stanislav Galiev chipped in with a pair of helpers as well, helping to make a winner out of Vitek Vanecek, who only needed to make 15 saves in improving his record to 17-10-7 on the season.
The victory was Hershey's fourth in a row and its eighth in its last 10 games. With a dozen games remaining, the Bears are tied for third place in the league's Atlantic Division. The Bears are only two points clear of fifth-place Bridgeport, which holds a game in hand.
Hershey travels to Bridgeport to face the Sound Tigers on Sunday afternoon in a contest that holds significant playoff implications.
Down a level, the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays made it a clean sweep for the organization with a 7-5 home ice win over the Greenville Swamp Rabbits at North Charleston Coliseum on Saturday night. Not only that, but Olivier Archambault notched a hat trick for the Stingrays, joining Oshie and Carey to give Washington a hat trick of hat tricks.
Andrew Cherniwchan scored twice for the Stingrays, who also got a single marker from Steven McParland and an empty-netter from captain Joe Devin in support of Parker Milner's 22-save night in the South Carolina crease. Milner earned his 20th win of the season, moving to 20-13-1 for 2016-17.
South Carolina is now idle until Wednesday when it travels to Atlanta to take on the Gladiators.
By The Numbers - Karl Alzner led all Caps with 22:02 in ice time … Alex Ovechkin and Burakovsky led the Caps with seven shots on net each, and Ovechkin led the way with 15 shot attempts … Tom Wilson led the Caps with four hits … Carlson led Washington with three blocked shots … Backstrom won 15 of 25 draws (60%).