Metro Crown - It wasn't a playoff game, but Thursday night's Caps-Canadiens carried significant importance for both teams. With a win, Washington would nail down a fourth straight Metropolitan Division title, and it would avoid the specter of facing the New York Islanders on Saturday with the division crown hanging in the balance.
As for Montreal, the Canadiens knew that even if they won in Washington on Thursday and back home in Quebec on Saturday against the Maple Leafs, they would still need help from other quarters to land the final Eastern Conference playoff berth. But the Habs needed that victory and those two points to give themselves the best possible chance.
The Habs won in Winnipeg on Saturday and they defeated league-leading Tampa Bay in Montreal on Tuesday. But they couldn't get it done in the District, taking a 2-1 loss from the Caps that leaves them dangling precariously ahead of their season finale on Saturday. By the time the Canadiens take the ice for warm-ups for that final game against Toronto, they might be mathematically eliminated.
For their part, the Caps have rendered their own season finale against the New York Islanders as moot; it's merely a tune-up for the postseason and an opportunity to give a couple of players a night off, should they choose to do so.
"We have another level for sure that we wanted to win and secure home ice and all of those things," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "But we have another level to take our game to, and we will. That's just where things are at. We are going to meet [Friday] and discuss how we can continue to grow and get better, and that's what's exciting about this team. They are still eager to learn and try to figure out ways to win."
Video: Todd Reirden | April 5
Bottoms Up - Washington didn't generate much in the way of good scoring chances until it took the lead in Thursday's game. The Caps' third line manufactured the first goal late in the first period, with Carl Hagelin starting the play with some sublime work on the forecheck, and Brett Connolly making a great feed to Lars Eller for the finish.
Early in the second, Andre Burakovsky shook down Montreal forward Paul Byron at the Habs' blueline, then found Nic Dowd in the slot. Dowd beat Montreal goalie Carey Price with a sharp wrister, and that turned out to be all the Caps needed.
During last year's run to the Stanley Cup championship, the Caps frequently got contributions from their bottom six forward corps. Washington got 30 goals from its bottom six forwards in 24 playoff games last spring, so it's a welcome sign that the group was able to generate both goals in an important and tight-checking game, a week or so ahead of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs.
"Obviously depth is key at any time," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "I think we know that Eller line in the last little bit has been playing extremely well. A lot of nights they are our best line. They bring energy, they bring momentum shifts, and tonight they did that, too."
Finishing Kick - Washington successfully nursed a one-goal lead for the final 37 minutes of the game. Although the Habs were playing with desperation and although they got the better of the possession metrics in all three periods, the Caps made that one-goal lead feel surer than some multi-goal leads at other points in the season.
The Caps managed the puck impeccably in the third, routinely getting pucks deep and still spending some time of their own in the offensive zone. On the occasions when Montreal was able to traverse the 200 feet and get into Washington ice, the Caps were adept at closing and taking away time and space, and they were also physical on the Habs.
Video: Postgame Locker Room | April 4
This was a good third period for a team gearing up for what it hopes will be another lengthy playoff run.
"The first two periods, there were some ups and downs in the game," says Reirden. "We expected them to push hard; they were a desperate team. Going into the third, we talked about how this was really a chance to improve at playing with the lead and managing pucks. They got a few chances, yes, and we had some as well. But for the most part I liked how we played in that third period. That was our best, for me, in terms of shutting down a team that was trying to save their season.
"It's a little bit of a different challenge when you look at it that way, that that team had to win that game to give themselves a chance, and we had to stop them. So it was something that was discussed between the second and the third [periods], and again it goes back to our goaltender and our leadership group and our team buy-in.
"You look at us getting that outcome, where do our goals come from? They come from our third and fourth line, and they come from having solid goaltending. That's what it takes and that what is going to be a strong reason why we can continue to play as long as possible this year."
Nic Has The Knack - Dowd is one of a few players in their first seasons with the Caps, and he has now supplied the game-winning goal in successive Thursday night games. Last Thursday in Carolina, he scored the game-winner in the contest that clinched the Caps' 11th playoff berth in the last 12 years, and a week later he notched the game-winner in the victory that landed the team its fourth straight Metropolitan Division title.
"I guess I don't think about it as those two individual things," says Dowd. "But as a whole, this season has been great. Obviously a great group of guys and I've learned a lot coming to a new organization. It's a real privilege to be a part of it, and I'm excited for the playoffs."
Down On The Farm - The AHL Hershey Bears were on the road on Thursday, visiting the Marlies in Toronto. Hershey skated out of town with a 3-0 shutout victory behind a 17-save shutout from goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who notched his third whitewash of the season.
All three Hershey goals came in the first period. Jayson Megna gave Samsonov all the support he would require at 1:18 of the first period, netting his 18th goal of the season with help from Tyler Lewington and Aaron Ness.
Mike Sgarbossa doubled the Bears' lead on a power play at 15:19 of the first, bagging his 29th goal of the season, Ness and Garrett Pilon assisting. Just 14 seconds later, Brian Pinho closed out the scoring with his fourth goal of the season. Joe Snively picked up the primary helper for his first pro assist, and Beck Malenstyn added a secondary helper.
Samsonov improved to 19-13-2 on the season with the victory, and the 39-24-3-4 Bears inched closer to securing a berth in the Calder Cup playoffs. Hershey still has six games remaining, starting with Friday night's trip to Belleville to take on the Senators, who are led by ex-Bears coach Troy Mann.
By The Numbers - John Carlson led the Capitals with 23:46 in ice time … Alex Ovechkin led Washington with five shots on net and eight shot attempts … Tom Wilson led the Caps with seven hits, and Brooks Orpik was close behind with six. Those two accounted for more than a third of Washington's total of 37 hits in the game … Matt Niskanen blocked seven shots to lead the Caps.