1. The Caps are rolling now. They fell behind early in the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday, but an Alex Ovechkin goal – as it seems to do every night now – fueled them. The star winger has 15 goals in his last 12 games and Washington is 9-2-1 during that stretch. He has 16 goals in his last 14 games.
“I think that’s why we’ve been playing so good as a team,” defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “I think everybody feeds off that and when we see him finding that next level I think everybody in the room finds that next level.”
That has Washington back in control of the Southeast Division race. It jumped two points ahead of the Winnipeg Jets and still has a game in hand. That will be gone by next Saturday when the Caps play Tampa Bay at home again and the Jets are off. Both teams play on Tuesday and Thursday. Still not over yet. Winnipeg is in the midst of six games in a row at home – five of them against teams out of a playoff spot – and visits the Caps here once more on April 23.
But Washington’s position is a lot better than the alternative. And this win pulled it even with the No. 8 seed New York Islanders. Both teams have 42 points in 39 games. Just another avenue to get into the playoffs if the Jets get hot. Think we can write off Carolina and Tampa Bay at this point. Both teams have 34 points. The Hurricanes have 11 games left, the Lightning 10. The players aren’t quite ready to go that far.
“It’s too early to say. We still have big games coming up,” Ovechkin said. “We have to try to win as many as we can.”
2. Busy couple weeks for Caps defenseman Jack Hillen. He signed a contract extension with the team for two years on April 2, he and his wife, Caitlin, closed on a home back in Minnesota, where they live in the offseason, and on Saturday Caitlin, gave birth to the couple’s second child, a boy named Knox. The problem? Hillen was in Florida at the time preparing for a game against the Panthers. Caitlin was home in Minnesota and not due until April 17.
But Knox wasn’t waiting around. Hillen spoke with his wife around 3:30 p.m. and then boarded the team bus to go to the arena. After the game – a 4-3 victory – Ian Anderson, the team services manager for the Caps, was waiting to tell Hillen his wife had given birth. He didn’t even know she was in labor. Hillen stayed up late FaceTiming with Caitlin after Washington returned home from Florida so he could probably be forgiven for a rough second period when he made a bad read on a long pass by Vinny Lecavalier and had Alex Killorn skate onto the puck and slip right around him en route to an easy goal.
3. Speaking of Killorn…I get he was frustrated, but putting your stick on the ice from the bench is stupid. Ovechkin, on his way to the game-clinching empty-net goal, had to skate through Killorn and all the way towards the net to deposit the puck in on the final play of the game with the Caps up 3-2. He needn’t have bothered. Officials awarded him the goal as soon as Killorn interfered. It was No. 25 for Ovechkin, who tied Steven Stamkos for the NHL lead. He has five goals in his last two games alone. But he’d probably be closer to 30 if not for a bunch of empty-net misses this season. Players weren’t sure the exact number – Nicklas Backstrom pegged it at five misses on the season – but Ovechkin finally took advantage of his chance.
4. No one really had any idea what to expect from goalie Michal Neuvirth. He’d twice battled illness last month and had all but ceded the starting job to Braden Holtby. Neuvirth had appeared in just three games since Feb. 8. But the Caps needed him on Sunday. Holtby has shouldered a heavy load of late and had just started on Saturday night in Florida. It was time to get Neuvirth a game. He showed well with 28 saves on 30 Tampa Bay shots, including a pair of stops on Lecavalier in the first period that kept Washington within one.
“Oh – he was great throughout the whole game, even in the third period,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Towards the end real big stops for us at crucial times. After the first goal, Lecavalier had two, pretty much, semi-breakaways and saved them both. Those are momentum shifts for us. Going into the locker room down 2-0 and 1-0 is a completely different story. And I think that we rallied around his efforts.”
5. It was only a secondary assist for Backstrom on Sunday, but he continues to be a point machine. He has points in six consecutive games and 11 of 14. He has 19 points during those 14 games – three goals and 16 assists. He has nine points alone in his last four games. After a slow start to the season, Backstrom is now up to a three-way tie for 10th in the NHL in scoring (40 points).
“[Backstrom’s] game has elevated. I think having Marcus [Johansson] back playing really good hockey has helped, and Alex, obviously, having some success on the power play,” coach Adam Oates said. “Confidence is an amazing thing, how it helps you. He doesn’t get the accolades. He’s more under the radar, which I think he likes. Ovi’s the guy that jumps into the glass and that’s the way it works, and he’s quite comfortable with it, but obviously he’s our man, too.”
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