WASHINGTON – Unafraid to look at their substantial lead atop the NHL standings, Washington Capitals players knew they were on the verge of clinching a playoff spot before they took the ice against the Carolina Hurricanes.
With almost a month left in the regular season, the Capitals on Tuesday became the first team to clinch with a 2-1 overtime victory against the Hurricanes.
Alex Ovechkin fittingly scored the game-winner as the Capitals reached the playoffs for the eighth time in the past nine years.
“It’s certainly unexpected with this many games left,” said winger Justin Williams, who scored his 21st goal in his first season with Washington. “It’s a tribute to how we’ve played and we’re proud of where we sit, but not proud enough to rest on our laurels.”
There was no celebration of the playoff berth or acknowledgement beyond some answers to interview questions.
The Capitals have led the league for several months, so this seemed inevitable, yet it was an accomplishment to get it over with so soon and move on to the next challenge of winning the Metropolitan Division and capturing the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
“Obviously it’s good for us,” said Ovechkin, who scored his league-leading 42nd goal of the season 1:38 into overtime. “Right now we have to be focusing how we have to play and just get healthy and then get ready for the playoffs.”
The Capitals clinched the instant the game got into overtime, needing just a point against Carolina.
Hurricanes coach Bill Peters wonders if that’s all his opponent should have gotten after it looked as if Evgeny Kuznetsov was offside before Ovechkin’s goal.
The NHL situation room challenged the goal, but on-ice officials upheld it.
“We probably still should be out there in some form or fashion maybe overtime or maybe a shootout, I don’t know,” Peters said as he awaited an explanation. “The league will have a really good conversation piece with that.”
Penguins 2, Islanders 1 (SO)
In Pittsburgh, the Penguins’ Kris Letang scored the only goal of the shootout with a pretty backhand past New York’s rookie goalie.
Sharks 3, Bruins 2
In San Jose, Joonas Donskoi scored a tiebreaking power-play goal with 13:23 remaining after an offensive zone penalty by Boston’s Jimmy Hayes.
Maple Leafs 4, Lightning 1
In Toronto, Ben Smith and Connor Carrick scored their first goals of the season to help the Maple Leafs beat Tampa Bay.
Flyers 4, Red Wings 3
In Philadelphia, Michael Raffl scored two goals to lift the Flyers to a key win.
Panthers 4, Canadiens 1
In Montreal, Vincent Trochek scored a goal and set up one by Jiri Hudler.
Senators 3, Wild 2 (OT)
In Ottawa, Erik Karlsson scored at 4:29 of overtime to lift the Senators.
Kings 5, Stars 2
In Dallas, Tyler Toffoli scored again a night after ending a long goal drought as Los Angeles capped an impressive back-to-back with another win.
The Kings won for the fourth time in five games.