They came wearing red. They came with air horns filled up and ready to blow. They came for some playoff hockey, and they didn’t care that it was still the regular season.
Most of all, 18,277 of Washington’s faithful hockey fans came to the Verizon Center on Tuesday night to see their Capitals, the heartwarming story of this NHL season, live to fight another day in their improbable bid for a playoff berth.
They came. They saw. They conquered.
Thanks to two goals late in the first period and a power-play goal in the second that fattened their lead back to two goals, the Capitals cruised to an impressive 4-1 victory over Carolina to pull into a tie with the Hurricanes for first place in the Southeast Division.
Each team has 90 points and two games remaining, starting Wednesday night in Carolina when the Hurricanes take on the last-place Tampa Bay Lightning
. Washington plays again Thursday at home against the Lightning and closes the season Saturday at home against Florida. Carolina finishes at home Friday night against the Panthers.
“Oh God, it was unbelievable,” Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin
said of the crowd and the entire night. “It’s an unbelievable feeling when the fans support you.”
As elated as the Capitals were after the game, they still know there is plenty of work to be done. The Hurricanes own the tiebreaker over them for the division title with 42 wins as opposed to their 41. If each team wins out and finishes with 94 points, the Hurricanes will win the division.
But that might be enough to get them into the playoffs. The Capitals trail Philadelphia and Boston by one point and Ottawa by two. The Flyers and Bruins each have a game in hand. The Buffalo Sabres
aren’t dead yet either, thanks to their shootout win in Toronto.
“We knew if we don’t win tonight it’s really difficult to get what we want to get,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau
, who took over at Thanksgiving when the team was 6-13-1 and dead last in the standings. “We were desperate and we’ll wake up tomorrow and say, ‘Holy geez, we have to win again Thursday or we’re not going to be where we want to be. And, again on Saturday. "The right ping-pong ball has to fall in the right space yet for us to be successful.”
Still, with little to gain and everything to lose, there was distinct playoff energy in the building Tuesday night. Many fans were calling this game the Caps’ most important home contest since 2003, the last time their team made the playoffs.
There was a strong media contingent, both at the game and at the Capitals’ morning skate out at their practice facility in Arlington, Va. The media was even buzzing about the importance of the game, with beat writers and broadcasters making predictions and cycling through all the tiebreak scenarios hours before the puck dropped.
Once it did, the “Let’s go Caps” chants began and the air horns started blowing.
Every time the Capitals made a rush, the decibel level in the Verizon Center rose. Every time Ovechkin touched the puck in the offensive zone, the decibel level rose. Every time Washington even cleared the zone for a line change, the decibel level rose.
When the Caps scored? Ear plugs, please.
“It’s energizing and a little bit demoralizing for the other team,” Matt Cooke said of the voluminous crowd. “They can’t hear what is going on, and we know they’re behind us 100 percent. It makes it that much more entertaining and enjoyable.”
The Capitals drove up the volume with a strong first period. They outscored the Hurricanes 2-0 on goals by Cooke with five minutes to play and a power-play tally by Brooks Laich with 59 seconds left. They outshot the Hurricanes 14-6. They outhit the Hurricanes 13-11.
Prior to the game, Boudreau stressed the importance of playing a good first period — especially against the Hurricanes, who are 22-5-1 when leading after the first, as opposed to the Caps, 6-16-2 record when trailing after 20 minutes.
Call it message received.
|Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau can't recall ever hearing the Verizon Center louder than it was on Tuesday night.
“I think everybody understands that if we don’t score the first two it’s going to be hard to win the game,” Ovechkin said. “We scored the first two goals and we just kept it simple and made some easy plays.”
Carolina erased half the deficit with Scott Walker’s 13th goal of the season just 2:38 into the second period. He got in behind Capitals defenseman Milan Jurcina and put the puck into the net before sliding in the goal himself.
However, nearly 10 minutes later with the score still 2-1, Trevor Letowski was whistled for a high-sticking double minor. Washington, which was just 1 for its last 24 on the power play heading into the game, capitalized nearly two minutes into the advantage.
Defenseman Mike Green, who assisted on Cooke’s goal, had two chances in the high slot. His first shot was blocked and came right back to him, and his second attempt went wide left, where Alexander Semin was positioned. Cam Ward valiantly slid across the crease, but Semin roofed the puck into the far right corner to make it 3-1 with 5:32 to play in the second period.
The Hurricanes actually took 24 penalty minutes and gave Washington eight power plays.
“They have a very good power play and they capitalized on their opportunities,” Carolina defenseman Glen Wesley said. “When you take a four-minute penalty like we did, it certainly hurts. In order for us to have success, we have to stay out of the box and play 5-on-5. We didn’t have a lot of that tonight.”
The Capitals not only took a 3-1 lead into the second intermission, they started the third with 1:26 remaining on Bret Hedican’s roughing penalty on Ovechkin. They didn’t score, but by keeping the puck in the zone, they bled more precious time off clock.
Once the clock got to less than four minutes remaining, little appeared in doubt, but Ovechkin decided to make sure of it. He ripped a slap shot into the back of the net with 3:36 remaining to make it 4-1 and seal it.
“When we got the fourth one,” Boudreau said, “it was something to breathe easier.”
When the Caps got the fourth one, chants of “MVP, MVP, MVP” erupted from the club seats to the cheap seats. As the goal was being announced, Ovechkin was shown on the big screen, raising his arms up to encourage the crowd to cheer even louder.
“I hope the next game will be the same,” Ovechkin said, “because we need it.”
When Boudreau was flashed up on the big screen moments later, the crowd remained in their tizzy.
“I thought it was the loudest I ever heard the building,” Boudreau said.
Just wait until Thursday.