WASHINGTON – Alex Ovechkin kept using the word “unbelievable.”
To describe the sellout crowd’s “M-V-P!” chants. And those fans’ all-around enthusiasm. And, of course, the way his Washington Capitals are playing right now.
How about the fact that the once-awful Capitals are tied for first place in the Southeast Division? That might be the most unfathomable thing of all.
Ovechkin scored his league-leading 63rd goal and got all sorts of help Tuesday night in Washington’s 4-1 victory over Carolina, a result that left both teams at 90 points with two games to go in the regular season.
“All the guys played well today,” Ovechkin said. “We’re playing for something right now.”
And he’s having a blast, even waving a glove to implore the red-clad spectators to get louder as they serenaded him after his insurance goal.
Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich and Matt Cooke scored earlier, Sergei Fedorov and Mike Green contributed two assists apiece, and Cristobal Huet made 21 saves. Add it all up, and the Capitals were able to celebrate a five-game winning streak for the first time since March 2001. They’ve also won nine of their past 10 games.
“The lesser lights were really outstanding tonight,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “And when I say ‘lesser lights’ – the guys that don’t get the attention as much.”
There are plenty of players who have played roles as Boudreau has engineered a stunning turnaround.
Remember: Washington ranked 30th of 30 NHL teams in late November, about a quarter of the way through the season, when the career minor league coach replaced the fired Glen Hanlon. And Washington still stood only 14th of 15 Eastern Conference clubs at the season’s halfway point.
Now, though, the Capitals have a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time since the 2002-03 season, sitting one point out of eighth place in the East. If they can pass the Hurricanes – as of now, Carolina holds the tiebreaker advantage – the Capitals would win their first division championship since 2000-01.
“You could tell what was at stake. If this is what it’s like in the playoffs in the NHL, no wonder it’s an exciting game,” Boudreau said. “The NHL knew what they were doing when they put the schedule together. If they wanted tight races, they got it.”
Both Washington and Carolina have games left against Tampa Bay and Florida.
“You have to assume they will win both of theirs,” Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. “We have to win both of ours.”
A regulation victory Tuesday would have allowed Carolina to clinch the division title and No. 3 seeding for the playoffs.
“We just need to move on,” Hurricanes forward Erik Cole said.
Most of the spectators in the announced sellout crowd of 18,277 wore red shirts, matching the Capitals’ jerseys, and they rose in unison for a standing ovation at the end of the first period. The home team was ahead 2-0 by then, and those fans were back on their feet, clapping and yelling, after Ovechkin made it 4-1 with 3 1/2 minutes left on a spectacular goal.
Rookie Nicklas Backstrom slid the puck in front of the net, seemingly out of Ovechkin’s reach. But the star left-wing reached out, his back to the crease, and controlled the puck, wheeled around and shot into the upper right corner.
“It just goes to show you: You can’t let up on that man for one second,” Boudreau said.
Cooke – like Huet, acquired the day of the trade deadline – put Washington ahead 15 minutes into the game by using his right skate to direct a rebound onto his stick and then knocking the puck home.
Several Capitals pointed to that goal as key, both for momentum and because of this statistic: Carolina entered the game 25-5-3 this season when it scores first, 17-26-3 when it doesn’t.
“We can’t expect Ovie to score all the time,” Huet said. “That first goal gave us a boost.”
Notes: Hurricanes Fs Justin Williams (knee) and Ray Whitney (leg) came off injured reserve and played – although Williams left with a torso injury. Williams missed the previous 43 games, Whitney the previous 12. … Huet has won his last seven starts. … Capitals D Shaone Morrisonn left in the first period with an upper body injury.