With the playoffs just over a week away, the Washington Capitals once again showed why they deserve the Presidents’ Trophy in a 3-2 victory over their division rival, the Columbus Blue Jackets, this Sunday. For fans watching the game, it felt like playoff hockey because it essentially was.
The Capitals, Blue Jackets and Penguins are all currently fighting for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division for home ice advantage and a matchup against the team in the second wild-card spot. Most likely that will be Toronto, Ottawa or Boston — all far less challenging first-round opponents than Pittsburgh or Columbus. As a result, the Capitals have had to step up into playoff mode with four games left in the regular season. And it is looking positive.
The Caps began on Sunday with a stalemate between two Vezina Trophy candidates: Washington’s Braden Holtby and Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky. Both teams had quality chances on net, and a 0-0 score heading into the second period can only be explained by near flawless performances by both goaltenders.
When Bobrovsky broke in the second, however, it was all Caps. T.J. Oshie opened the scoring off a beautiful backhanded shot, his 33rd of the season. André Burakovsky soon followed with a pinpoint shot off a great feed from Lars Eller. This is noteworthy mainly because many are beginning to suspect the Caps will not re-sign Oshie this summer due to cap space constraints, and Burakovsky will be a natural fit to the position of first-line right winger, where Oshie plays now with Nicklas Bäckström and Alex Ovechkin. Though this scenario should not be counted as definite yet, it is good to know that the Caps will be prepared.
The Caps made it 3-0 by the end of the second with a fantastic finish by defenseman Matt Niskanen off an even better steal and feed by Burakovsky. This is when things began to get dicey. Every shot attempt and stoppage in play resulted in a fight as the frustration of the Blue Jackets boiled over. By the middle of the third period, every player on the ice joined in a huge scrap that can only be explained by the seriousness of both of these teams — one of which will not make it past the second round of the playoffs, despite the fact that the Capitals and Blue Jackets are two of the best teams in the league.
The Jackets made a push in the third, scoring two to make it a one-goal game but could not close out the comeback. With the win, Washington extended its lead in the Metropolitan Division to five points over Pittsburgh and six points over Columbus. The cushion is reassuring, but nothing is certain with four games left.
The Capitals played well, but, as always, there is plenty to be nervous about, especially defensively. Kevin Shattenkirk has been a welcome addition in both skill and experience, but John Carlson and Karl Alzner did not demonstrate the level of play the team needs from them. Hopefully that is just the result of a late-season game against a very strong offensive team, but only time will tell. Until then, there will be some very exciting hockey to watch.
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