WASHINGTON -- Just over two months ago, what transpired Tuesday evening at Verizon Center would have seemed to be something out of a Hollywood movie.
The Washington Capitals -- who at one point were just 2-8-1 and in dead last in the NHL standings, having just an estimated 2.16 percent chance of making the playoffs per Sports Club Stats -- wrapped up the final Southeast Division title with a 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
Alex Ovechkin -- who spent the first half of the season under fire from critics who wondered if he was washed up or even should be traded or bought out - fired in his league-leading 31st goal of the season as an empty-net insurance goal after recording a crisp assist on a key goal in the second period. The two points pulled him just three behind Sidney Crosby in the Art Ross Trophy race.
The contest also featured two remarkable goal-saving plays by Washington defenseman John Erskine, who helped Capitals netminder Braden Holtby erase two good Winnipeg scoring chances, including a chance that he literally stopped at the goal line.
"I did what anyone would have done," Erskine simply said. "I happened to be in the right spot at the right time and kept the puck out."
Thanks to some strong work by the grinders, a nifty goal off the top line, and strong play in the defensive zone, a team that looked like an absolute mess back in early February moved to 10-1-0 in April with points in 12 of their last 13.
While the Capitals in recent seasons have authored some remarkable rallies down the stretch to claim a playoff spot -- most recently clinching the Southeast in their final game in 2007-08 -- this one may be the most improbable.
Washington has gone 24-10-1 since losing 5-2 to Pittsburgh back on February 7, and now will claim the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs after erasing a 10-point deficit to Carolina and then outlasting a challenge from the surging Jets. The Capitals have reached the playoffs six straight seasons, five of the last six as division champs.
Heading into the Southeast Division game for the Capitals, Capitals forward Matt Hendricks drew on an important game the Capitals were crushed in last year to create a much different result.
"Last year, we had a similar situation in a game against Buffalo here, and kind of laid an egg," Hendricks said. "We knew it was an important game and they were going to come to play desperate hockey, at the same time, we had two games to go in the regular season and controlled our destiny, we wanted to stick to the system and let it do its work."
The Capitals rolled out to a lead on goals by Hendricks and Jason Chimera, and after the Jets tied the game late in the second, Nicklas Backstrom delivered a tip-in of an Ovechkin pass to give the Capitals a lead they wouldn't relinquish again.
Backstrom, who was part of that 2007-08 team that qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the season, was asked if this was the most satisfyingdivision title.
"Yeah, I think so. Especially when we had to recover from our tough start."
"I think we believed in ourselves," he added. "We talked a lot in the locker room and kept everything for ourselves. We worked hard every day, started winning games and you get confidence and keep rolling. That's what it's all about."
Hendricks also credited the Capitals' first-year coach, Adam Oates for his work.
"Through all this, I felt like we were going to come around, and sooner or later, and it worked out like we envisioned," Hendricks said. "It was kind of that even keel that comes from the coaching staff to the last player. We came in here, we're a confident group, we can play with anybody."
"It is a good feeling," Backstrom said of reaching the playoffs. "That was our goal from the start of the season, it's been up and down like a roller coaster, but I think we stuck together and worked as a team, and now we're in the playoffs."
But while the Capitals authored a memorable evening, Oates knows the team has bigger goals.
"It was a good game, a hard fought game, the building was electric," Oates said. "They played very well I thought, and you know, it kind of had a playoff atmosphere to it. We'll talk about that tomorrow and move on."