WASHINGTON -- In late March the Washington Capitals were nine points behind the Winnipeg Jets in the Southeast Division standings, seemingly on the verge of elimination with back-to-back games awaiting them in Winnipeg.
In late April the Capitals are Southeast Division champions with two games to spare in their truncated season. Of course it came with a 5-3 victory over the Jets on Tuesday night in D.C., giving the Caps the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
You can imagine how that feels.
"Obviously it feels good right now," rookie head coach Adam Oates said. "It was a hard-fought game, the building was electric. It kind of had a playoff atmosphere to it."
That's no wonder considering the game had so much on the line. It showed from the opening drop, particularly from the Capitals. The opening minutes of the game on Tuesday night with so much riding on the line belonged completely to the Washington Capitals. The Jets barely possessed the puck in the first 3 1/2 minutes and when they did have it they were mostly just shuffling it out to the neutral zone and nothing more.
With that kind of zone pressure it was inevitable that the Caps would score, even if it came in an unpredictable way. Matt Hendricks, not exactly known as a scorer, threw a shot on net from behind the goal line. Well behind the goal line. It banked off the back of Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec and in.
"Hey, man, I don't know how long it's been since I scored," Hendricks said with a smile. "I came out of the gate swinging here and there. It was a great feeling but that's not what I'm here to do."
Yup, it sure looked like it was a great feeling.
That goal was an omen of sorts for what was to come for Winnipeg. The Jets took a couple of counter-punches that were somehow saved by the Capitals. Not goaltender Braden Holtby, who shut the Jets out twice earlier this season, but by defenseman John Erskine. Not once but twice did Erskine save goals, both with spectacular plays. One he batted out of mid air as the puck was hovering over the line. It was so close that it was reviewed but the call on the ice couldn't be overturned: no goal.
"The puck went to the guy that was open there," Erskine said, describing the play. "It looked like Holtsy wasn't going to be able to get across and I just flew across and tried to do the two-pad stack. I think I just got a piece of it. It was a big game. I think guys would do anything for a W tonight."
It was just that kind of night for the Caps. Frankly, it's been that kind of season for the Caps. It's rather remarkable to think they even had a chance to win the division, let alone do it with games to spare. Remember, they started this season 2-8-1, putting them at the bottom of the standings from the get go.
"We got hot. We got hot at the right time," Hendricks said, referring in part to the Caps' eight-game win streak. "The way we started there were a lot of doubters. Our fans were against us a little bit. The media was hard on us a little bit. But we came in and did what we set out to do."
On the other side of that elation is the Jets' despair. Their only saving grace on Tuesday night was that the Rangers managed to lose to the Panthers, keeping them in range of the eighth seed and nothing more with only one game left in their season.
"No emotions, it's frustrating to lose a game like that," Jets forward Nik Antropov said. "It was basically our Game 7 in the playoffs and it's frustrating to lose that way."
Now the Jets are in the helpless position of relying on others.
"We obviously made it a lot tougher on ourselves and we're going to need some help," Andrew Ladd said. "We have to show up and make sure we're ready for Montreal and give ourselves a chance to at least put ourselves in a situation where if those other teams lose, we can get in."
What's for sure, though, is that it won't be the Capitals the Jets are watching, hoping for a loss. The Caps are division champs once more.
"It's a feather in our cap," Hendricks said of winning the Southeast. "We'd like a couple other feathers if you know what I mean."