1. Another season, another late playoff push for the Capitals. This isn’t exactly how you draw it up, but with a 15-9-1 record since an awful start – and some help from their struggling Southeast Division rivals – Washington is somehow just two points out of the division lead with two games in hand. It faces first-place Winnipeg at home on April 23, one of 12 games left on the schedule.
There’s a chance it could even take over first place as soon as Thursday with the Jets (18-18-2, 38 points) finishing a long road trip at Montreal and the Caps – now at fake .500 (17-17-2, 36 points) – hosting the Islanders. Not a given. And Winnipeg has seven of its last nine games at home so a strong finish is still a must. But with five points gained on a three-game road trip Washington feels a lot better about its chances.
One heads up: While the Caps have now won the season series from both the Jets and Carolina Hurricanes, they still trail both in regulation and overtime wins. Winnipeg has 17, Carolina 16 and Washington 15. That is the first tiebreak and could be necessary when we get to the end of the month.
The Caps also still need one point in the final home game against the Hurricanes on April 11. Thanks to the lockout there are an uneven number of home games against some division opponents. The results of the first home game of the team that hosted three times out of five will be tossed. Yet another reason to hate the lockout.
2. So Alex Ovechkin is on fire. Whatever happens the rest of the season you have to think with even a decent finish both the Caps and their star winger will have their confidence renewed. He has 10 goals in his last 11 games. He has 20 goals on the season in 36 games. That’s a 46-goal pace for a full season. And while you can’t really play that game, it’s still much closer to what the organization wants to see. Ovechkin has to continue playing a more well-rounded game after his move to right wing– but those goals go a long way towards justifying his monster salary. He is tied for third in goals in the NHL and has moved up to 10th in points with 37.
3. The change to hybrid icing can’t get here soon enough. We’ve seen plenty of serious injuries over the years as players race each other for pucks, speeding towards the unforgiving end boards. Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen paid the price on Tuesday as he tried to beat Troy Brouwer to a puck for icing. He did, but also slammed his right ankle into the boards and had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher. TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that an ankle injury will end Pitkanen’s season. That’s a devastating blow to a team that was already shaky on the blueline and desperate for depth at that position. Pitkanen had earlier missed 14 games with a lower-body injury.
The AHL experimented with hybrid icing earlier this season where players race to a specific spot and if the defensive players wins it’s icing and if not then it’s play on. Injuries like Pitkanen’s don’t happen often, but even a few each year may be too many because when they do happen they can be catastrophic. The rule change has been supported by the NHL’s general managers, but still needs approval from the NHL Players’ Association and the league’s competition committee when it meets in June. Players would reportedly rather have no-touch icing where the puck crosses the line and the play is blown dead. Either way, a change needs to happen.
4. How about four primary assists for center Nicklas Backstrom? That’s the seventh time he’s done that in his NHL career. Not bad for a night’s work and the first time he’s had four in a game since Nov. 11, 2010. The first goal was a drop pass to Ovechkin on the rush and the big man did the rest with a nasty wrister. Credit defensemen Jack Hillen and John Carlson for the smart breakout passes on that one, too. That was a huge goal down 2-0 with just 39 seconds left in the first period.
The second goal was a saucer pass to defenseman Mike Green. Backstrom held the puck at the right faceoff circle for what seemed like forever. But he was just drawing all the penalty killers lower in the zone. He fed the puck to Green at the point for a slap shot goal. Mike Ribeiro provided the screen in front.
The third goal was another drop pass – to Green again – off a Carolina turnover. The last one started when Marcus Johansson poked a loose puck ahead to Backstrom for a quick 2-on-1 with Ovechkin. His pass again was true and Ovechkin roofed a shot past goalie Justin Peters. About the only negative for Backstrom on the night was a 2-minute hooking penalty late in the second period. But even that was successfully killed.
5. Green has also caught fire. He scored the game-tying goal in the dying seconds of Saturday’s dramatic win at Buffalo and scored two more against the Hurricanes on Tuesday. That makes five goals in six games with one assist during that stretch. That’s another promising sign as Green shakes off the groin injury that kept him out of action for almost three weeks. Maybe more important is it came on the power play. Washington hadn’t had one of those from a defenseman all season, which is kind of incredible after 36 games. Only two NHL defensemen have more goals than Green now and none have played in so few games (23).
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