TORONTO - Alex Ovechkin's 300th career goal helped the Washington Capitals clinch their fourth consecutive Southeast Division title.
He'll need to score more big goals if that title is going to mean anything in the playoffs.
Washington locked up top spot in its group thanks to a 3-2 shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night. But as good as the Capitals have been in the regular season in recent years, they've failed to translate that into any significant post-season success, not making it past the second round in any of the past three seasons. They were ousted in the first round by Montreal last season after finishing as the top team in the NHL.
While a Stanley Cup run is the obvious goal, Ovechkin–whose team can still claim top spot in the Eastern Conference–still values what the team has already achieved.
"We want to be in first everywhere, so it's nice," he said of sewing up the Southeast.
Ovechkin scored on a five-on-three power play to tie the game at 1-1 in the first period, hitting new career milestone in his sixth NHL season.
"It feels good," he said. "When you score 300 goals in six years, it's a big accomplishment. I play for a great team."
With 31 goals on the season, Ovechkin’' output is far below what’s expected of him after scoring at least 50 the past three years. However, he has come on in the second half of the season with 15 goals in his past 29 games, including goals in back-to-back wins.
The Washington captain said motivation comes easily this time of year as the club prepares to play the most important games of its season.
"You get excited, I think the whole team gets excited," he said of gearing up for the playoffs.
Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said he wished he could explain exactly why Ovechkin is scoring more now, but did offer one theory.
"He's a little more accurate with his shot, I think that's probably the main thing," Boudreau said. "It wasn't very accurate at the beginning."
Washington has implemented some changes in its game over the course of the season, with an eye toward becoming a team built more for grinding out close-checking playoff games. The addition of big centre Jason Arnott at the trade deadline helped the transition.
"I think we're more responsible," Boudreau said. "We've got a few more vocal guys than we had last year and that’s probably the biggest change."
Still, the change in the Capitals' philosophy won't truly be tested until the post-season..
"I don't know what's changed," Boudreau said. "We haven't got to the playoffs yet."