Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis recently wrote in his blog that the “playoff race is now on.”
Having Alexander Ovechkin continue playing like an All-Star could go a long way toward ensuring the team’s first postseason appearance in five years.
Led by the NHL’s top goal-scorer, Washington looks to continue its climb up the Eastern Conference standings on Tuesday night when it meets the surging Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre in the start of a home-and-home series.
With 51 points, the Capitals (23-22-5) are in 10th place in the East, but just three points behind the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers, who are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot. Washington hasn’t played a postseason game since 2002-03, when it lost to Tampa Bay in the quarterfinals.
Through the first quarter of this season, though, the Capitals were in disarray. They averaged 2.23 goals per game en route to a league-worst 6-14-1 start that resulted in coach Glen Hanlon being fired on Thanksgiving Day. Bruce Boudreau, who was coaching the Caps’ top farm team, took over and has guided Washington to a 17-8-4 record in which it’s averaged 3.37 goals per game.
“It took two or three weeks before they started realizing that I think I meant business a little bit and I know what I’m talking about for the most part,” Boudreau said. “I felt comfortable with the group from the beginning. I just did what I did … and it seems to have a positive effect so far.”
No one on Washington has stepped up his play more than Ovechkin, who led the East to a win in the SuperSkills competition on Saturday before scoring twice in an 8-7 victory on Sunday at the All-Star game in Atlanta.
Ovechkin has registered 25 of his 39 goals and 17 of his 26 assists since Boudreau took over. Ovechkin also is on pace for 64 goals this season - no one has scored 60 in one season since Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux (69) and Jaromir Jagr (62) in 1995-96.
“We just have a goal - play hard every game,” said Ovechkin, who scored twice in Washington’s 5-4 overtime win at Montreal on Jan. 5. “And make little steps. It’s just the beginning for our team.”
The Capitals earned a home-and-home split against Toronto with a 2-1 win on Thursday in the final game before the All-Star break. Viktor Kozlov scored the go-ahead goal 5:30 into the final period for Washington.
Montreal (26-15-8) resumes play fourth in the East with 60 points, one point ahead of New Jersey and two in front of Pittsburgh. The Canadiens will be looking for their third straight win and fifth in six games.
On Thursday, Montreal rallied with three third-period goals to defeat New Jersey 4-3. The Canadiens were 0-8-1 with one tie in their previous 10 road games against the Devils.
After Bryan Smolinski and Saku Koivu scored to tie it at 3, Christopher Higgins notched a power-play goal with 5:29 remaining. Cristobal Huet needed to make just three saves in the final 20 minutes and finished with only 10.
Andrei Markov, the Canadiens’ only All-Star representative, scored on Sunday. Markov has 11 goals this season, tying him for third in the NHL among defensemen. Washington’s Mike Green leads all blueliners with 14 goals in 2007-08.
These teams will meet for the final time in the regular season on Thursday at the Verizon Center.