Shortly after noon, Caps coach Barry Trotz informed reporters that he viewed Saturday night's road game with the Tampa Bay Lightning as a "must win" contest for his team. Given that the Caps went into the game on the cusp of clinching a playoff berth while the depleted Lightning are battling hard with a few other teams for the final remaining postseason berth in the Eastern Conference, "must win" seemed to apply to the home team more than the Capitals.
Either way, the Caps got the job done, taking a 5-3 win from the Bolts in Tampa. T.J. Oshie had a hat trick for the Capitals, and Nicklas Backstrom recorded four assists, marking the second time this week he has had three or more helpers in a game.
Video: Caps clinch playoff berth behind Oshie's hat trick
Saturday's win, coupled with the New York Islanders' loss to Columbus earlier in the day, clinches a playoff berth for the Capitals for the ninth time in the last 10 seasons.
With the win, the Caps now own a modest three-game points streak (2-0-1) and they move two points ahead of Columbus, which had moved into a flat-footed tie with Washington by virtue of the aforementioned victory over the Islanders. Perhaps more importantly in the long run, the Capitals seemed to rediscover some of their offensive mojo in Tampa. They spent a good deal of time in the attack zone, working the puck around and exacting a toll on the Tampa Bay defense.
If anything, Saturday's game seemed to be a step or two closer to where the Capitals want to be, and where they need to be with the playoffs looming on the horizon.
Video: Caps talk after playoff-clinching victory in Tampa
"Yeah, I think it was," says Oshie. "They play hard, and they play fast. And for not having some of the biggest guys, they play a pretty physical game. It had a little bit of a playoff atmosphere out there, and I thought we responded pretty well."
Washington drew first blood, cashing in on a power play at 3:44 of the first. For 71 seconds, the Caps' power play dominated the Bolts in the Tampa Bay end, moving the puck swiftly and efficiently, executing retrievals and making the Lightning chase them and the puck. The payoff came when Oshie ripped a shot home from the diamond after some precision passing from Marcus Johansson and Backstrom set him up.
Video: WSH@TBL: Oshie caps off passing play for PPG
Johansson left the game shortly thereafter and did not return, an apparent victim of the flu.
Just over eight minutes later, the Caps doubled their lead. Alex Ovechkin and Oshie tore into the Tampa Bay zone with the former carrying the puck. Ovechkin floated a perfect saucer pass to Oshie, who converted at the right post to give Washington a 2-0 lead at 11:52 of the first.
Video: WSH@TBL: Oshie one-times Ovechkin's perfect dish
Tampa Bay cut into that Capitals lead on a Lightning power play exactly four minutes after Oshie's second goal, making it a 2-1 game when Nikita Kucherov went top shelf with the rebound of an Ondrej Palat shot.
Sixteen seconds later, the Lightning tied it up. As he was losing his balance and falling to the ice in the slot, Alex Killorn pulled the trigger and fired. The puck clicked off Caps winger Justin Williams' stick, changing direction just enough to find its way behind Washington goaltender Braden Holtby to make it a 2-2 contest at 16:08.
Neither side was able to generate any offense during a second period in which neither side had any power play opportunities. Both goaltenders were solid when they needed to be, and the Caps needed Holtby to make a big stop on Killorn off a two-on-one chance early in the middle frame.
Sixty-one seconds into the third period, the Caps went back on the power play. Once again, they showed good extra-man fundamentals even though they didn't score during the two-minute span. They did retain the puck in the Tampa Bay zone, and Andre Burakovsky - back in the lineup after a 15-game absence because of a hand injury - spotted Matt Niskanen hopping over the boards and into the zone. Burakovsky put it on a tee for Niskanen, who crushed a shot toward the net. Williams tipped it past Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy for a 3-2 Washington lead at 3:14 of the third. For Williams, the goal was his 20th of the season, marking the sixth time he has reached that plateau during the course of his NHL career.
Video: WSH@TBL: Williams deflects in Niskanen's hard slapper
"They were really moving the puck," says Caps coach Barry Trotz of his team's power play. "We established the shot real quick, and then just the pace of moving the puck was much better for our power play.
"When we're moving it, I think it's really hard [for the opposition]; it opens up a lot more seams. I think when we slow it down, it does in fact slow us down, too. It helps teams recover. But today they were moving it around really quick, and we had a lot of zone time. That one group that was out there, they were out there for like a minute and a half and then Nisky walked into one, and that was a huge goal for us."
Just over two minutes later, the Capitals restored their two-goal lead. Backstrom drew a tripping call in neutral ice, and with Holtby on the bench in favor of an extra attacker, John Carlson took a swing at Oshie's midair feed and whipped a line drive past Vasilevskiy to make it a 4-2 game at 5:30 of the third.
Video: WSH@TBL: Carlson reaches to bat puck in out of midair
The Caps managed the game well the rest of the way, though the Bolts did cut into the lead with 90 seconds left and an extra attacker on the ice. Brayden Point won an offensive zone draw to Kucherov, who quickly fired a shot past Holtby to make it 4-3.
Oshie got that one back for Washington in the game's final minute when he lofted a pop fly backhander from center ice right into the middle of the vacated Tampa Bay net.
"I thought we managed the game pretty well early in the game," says Trotz. "They scored that power play goal and then they scored that next one [to make it 2-2]. What I liked about it is that we stabilized quickly. I thought we stabilized pretty well there. We sort of said, 'Okay, we gave it right back. Let's stay to the game plan and keep going.'
Video: Coach Trotz on clinching a playoff spot
"I thought we got stronger as the game went on. We really didn't give up a whole heck of a lot the next two periods. We stayed disciplined. Even when they scored the goal on the draw at six-on-five, there was no panic. And those are two good lessons. I like our response on that. We were emotionally engaged, we were doing the right things, shooting the puck and we got a good result."
The result, in fact, was the exact one Trotz said the Capitals must have.