Unafraid to look at their substantial lead atop the NHL standings, Washington Capitals players knew they were on the verge of clinching a playoff spot before they took the ice against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“It’s certainly unexpected with this many games left,” said winger Justin Williams, who scored his 21st goal in his first season with the Capitals. “It’s a tribute to how we’ve played and we’re proud of where we sit, but not proud enough to rest on our laurels.”
There was no celebration of the playoff berth or acknowledgement beyond some answers to interview questions.
The Capitals have led the league for several months, so this seemed inevitable, yet it was an accomplishment to get it over with so soon and move on to the next challenge of winning the Metropolitan Division and capturing the top seed in the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
“Obviously it’s good for us,” said Ovechkin, who scored his league-leading 42nd goal of the season 1:38 into OT. “Right now we have to be focusing how we have to play and just get healthy and then get ready for the playoffs.”
The Capitals clinched the instant the game got into OT, needing just a point against Carolina.
Hurricanes coach Bill Peters wonders if that’s all his opponent should have gotten after it looked as if Evgeny Kuznetsov was offside before Ovechkin’s goal.
The NHL situation room challenged the goal, but on-ice officials upheld it.
“We probably still should be out there in some form or fashion maybe overtime or maybe a shootout, I don’t know,” Peters said as he awaited an explanation. “The league will have a really good conversation piece with that.”
Video evidence appeared inconclusive, though the NHL wrote that the Capitals “entered the attacking zone legally prior to the goal.”
Carolina answered back with a goal by Jordan Staal at 10:50 of the second, and goaltender Eddie Lack and the post helped get the game to overtime.