Capitals’ greater sense of urgency helped clinch division
Almost every time Pittsburgh Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist paraded to the front of the net on Sunday, he was met with a series of shoves, fists and sticks.
The Capitals were well aware of Hornqvist’s chaos from two straight years of playoff battles, and so they were determined to make him think twice even if it meant getting shots in after the whistle. Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer used his stick to swat Hornqvist away. Forward Devante Smith-Pelly shoved him out of frame. Defenseman Matt Niskanen threw a few punches, for good measure.
With the Metropolitan Division title on the line, the Capitals weren’t willing to fold to their rival.
By the end of the Capitals’ 3-1 victory capped off by two Penguins ejections Washington displayed the same urgency that they’ve carried for the last month. They were rewarded with their third straight division title.
Because of the razor-thin margins in the Metropolitan Division, the Capitals have usually brought the same intensity from night to night, and are playing some of their best hockey before the playoffs begin April 11.
Prior to Monday’s matchup against the St. Louis Blues, the Capitals had won 10 of the last 12.
“Guys were flying and it had that playoff type of game,” forward Tom Wilson told reporters in Pittsburgh. “You want to see what you can do in that certain situation. It’s encouraging for our group to see that, that potential that we have in tight-knit fast games.
“Guys are going to get a chance to keep stepping up here, and that’s what you need at this time of year,” he added.
In 2017, the Capitals coasted in the lead-up to the playoffs. They clinched a playoff spot on March 18 of that year nearly a month ahead of the postseason. They secured the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the team with the best record, with two games left.
The wiggle room allowed the Capitals to take their foot off the gas.
“It was painful at times,” coach Barry Trotz said. “There no doubt, the last 20 games last year, we were going to finish the first in our division. That’s not the case, this year. We’re just scoreboard watching like everybody else.”
But during this recent stretch, the Capitals have had to play their ‘A’ game, even against sub-.500 opponents.
Internal competition among the bottom six has kept players on their toes, from veterans to rookies alike. Trotz still hasn’t decided on his lineup, tweaking from game to game. Rookie Shane Gersich impressed Trotz in his debut last week, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he made an appearance in the playoffs. Veterans Brett Connolly, Alex Chiasson and Smith-Pelly have rotated in-and-out of the lineup.
Washington also has to sort out its goaltending situation. Trotz has avoided calling it a “controversy,” although Grubauer has continued to make his case for starting Game 1 of the first round. Grubauer had 36 saves Sunday against Pittsburgh.
Trotz said he wants both of his goaltenders to make a statement, and for them “to be going really well, and they are.” Holtby got the start Monday in St. Louis.
The hope, however, is the circumstances will help the Capitals become sharper for the playoffs.
Washington will enter the postseason with lesser expectations from the outside, mainly due to key offseason departures.
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” forward Nicklas Backstrom said. “Because we know in here what we can do and we believe in what we’re doing.”
The Capitals faced a must-win situation in Pittsburgh. If they had lost, the Penguins would have been one point behind the division lead with three games remaining.
Washington withstood the trash talking and chipiness, retorting to their own. Late in the game, Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin was ejected for swatting T.J. Oshie’s stick toward the Capitals bench. As he was leaving, Malking exchanged words with center Evgeny Kuznetsov.
But first, rather than let Malkin’s action go unnoticed, Oshie answered back by jumping on him.
“We still want to get our game to a certain level,” Oshie said. “Tonight was a good step for us to do that.”