The playoffs are for unlikely heroes, when the stars get stymied and it's on the secondary scoring to be the difference. Thursday night’s game between the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens was still two games short of the postseason, but considering the stakes for both clubs, the sense of urgency wasn’t all that different from what it’ll be a week from now.
And with the Capitals’ top two lines held off the scoresheet, it was Washington’s bottom two that delivered a 2-1 win at Capital One Arena to claim a fourth straight Metropolitan Division title while dealing a devastating blow to Montreal’s playoff hopes. The Canadiens sit just outside of an Eastern Conference wild-card position, and with the Carolina Hurricanes clinching their postseason berth Thursday, just one spot is still up for grabs.
“You look at us getting that outcome, where do our goals come from? They come from our third and fourth line, they come from having solid goaltending,” coach Todd Reirden said. “That's what it takes and that's what's going to be a strong reason why we can continue to play as long as possible this year.”
For a game that at least had the feel of the playoffs, goaltender Braden Holtby was fittingly sharp, recording 33 saves. The Capitals now have the luxury of playing a regular-season finale against the New York Islanders with nothing on the line, able to potentially rest a handful of regulars. Washington was happiest with its effort in the third period, when it managed the puck well to maintain its one-goal lead.
“I think we did the right things at the right time,” Holtby said. “If we were under duress in our end, at least someone came up with a big play, flip it out or something — live to fight another day. At the blue lines we were a lot better, a lot like we need to be in the playoffs, and I thought the guys had a high-level commitment to winning.”
Extra motivated playing his former team, third-line center Lars Eller has shown a knack for scoring against the Canadiens. Montreal traded Eller to Washington before the 2016-17 season, and solidifying the third-line center role was one of the moves that eventually delivered the Capitals a Stanley Cup last June. He was a star last postseason with seven goals and 11 assists in 24 games, and he scored the championship-clinching goal in Game 5 of the finals. While Eller and right wing Brett Connolly have stayed together most of the season, the left-wing spot on that line has been a revolving door. With Carl Hagelin there on Thursday night, the trio scored the game’s first goal.
Hagelin’s forecheck pressure created a turnover at the end boards, and he relayed the puck to Connolly, who set up Eller alone in the slot. Eller’s goal marked his fourth in three games against the Canadiens this season and his 13th overall. Hagelin, a trade-deadline addition who has been a superb fit, came to the Capitals with eight points in 38 games and now has 11 points in 19 contests.
“We can’t expect our top guys to score every game and win every game for us,” Eller said. “So, yeah, that’s going to be crucial. History shows as well that is going to be crucial to have depth and have contribution from all four lines.”
Said Holtby: “Obviously depth is key at any time. The Eller line, they’ve been playing extremely well. A lot of nights they’re our best line. They bring energy, they bring momentum shifts.”
But Washington expected a desperate effort from Montreal, and just 21 seconds after Eller’s tally, center Nicklas Backstrom was assessed a high-sticking minor. Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber scored 35 seconds into the power play to equalize in the final minute of the first period. Montreal missed the playoffs last season, and the team was expected to do the same this year, but with some new young, speedy pieces and a superstar goaltender in Carey Price, the Canadiens have experienced a resurgence. They entered Thursday 6-1-1 in their past eight games.
Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said before the game he was hopeful for a playoff-like atmosphere as good preparation for next week, and with just two penalties all game, it was called like a postseason game. Less than three minutes into the second period, Montreal’s Jonathan Drouin hit Washington’s Andre Burakovsky, flipping him onto his back. The Capitals’ bench wanted a whistle, but Burakovsky got his own revenge, swiping the puck away from Paul Byron at the offensive blue line before dishing the puck to Nic Dowd. Dowd scored just as right wing Travis Boyd jumped in front of Price as a screen, and that tally was the only one of the frame, giving Washington a 2-1 lead through 40 minutes.
Dowd, one of only a few new faces on the Capitals this season, has enjoyed a career season with eight goals and 14 assists. Before this season, he had nine goals for his career.
Washington’s run of four straight division crowns started with general manager Brian MacLellan improving the team’s supporting cast a little more with each season. The Metropolitan has been among the most competitive division’s over that span, and while the Capitals are expected to be among the top teams in the group, the consistent regular-season success isn’t to be taken for granted. Coming off a long playoff run to the Stanley Cup followed by a shorter summer, Washington was expected to struggle with that wear this season, and while the Capitals had their lulls, they’ve especially played well since the start of February.
Players largely dismissed the importance of winning the division — playoff seeding doesn’t tend to mean much in the NHL — and they instead emphasized the importance of finding their game the closer the postseason got. On Thursday night, the Capitals accomplished both, guaranteeing themselves home-ice advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs.
“We have another level for sure,” Reirden said. “We wanted to win and secure home ice and all those things, but we have another level to take our game to and we will.”
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