Weekend Takeaways: Capitals entering conversation among Stanley Cup contenders

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin, center, celebrates with center Nicklas Backstrom, left, and defenseman Nick Jensen after scoring the winning goal against the Buffalo Sabres during the shootout of an NHL hockey game. (Adrian Kraus/AP)

With back-to-back wins on the final weekend of March, the Washington Capitals put a bow on a solid month of hockey. Doing so not only put more distance between the Caps and a prolonged run of subpar play this year, but it also raised the question of whether or not there’s a single team of the eight locked-in Eastern Conference playoff clubs that would shock you if they went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final?

On Friday, Alex Ovechkin scored the game-tying goal and added the shootout winner as Washington beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-3 in Western New York. Twenty-four hours later, on home ice, the Caps downed the New Jersey Devils by the same score. Don’t be fooled, though: Washington’s strong month isn’t built solely on the back of kicking around bottom-feeders. The Capitals started March like lions and stayed in beast mode for weeks, beating the Metropolitan Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes 4-0 in Washington on March 3 to notch the first victory in what is currently a 9-2-1 record in the month. They also beat the Canes in Carolina and toppled the powerhouse Flames in Calgary during a roadie through Western Canada that saw the team snag five of six possible points and Nick Backstrom register the 1,000th point of his fantastic career. The Caps close out the month on Monday with a third contest versus Carolina and, as it stands, they’re tied with Florida and Boston for the best points percentage in the month at .792.

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That success stands in stark contrast to the results this team got from December through February, as the Capitals went 14-15-4 during that span. Every good team hits a rough patch, but they’re not supposed to last three months. And make no mistake: Despite the fact this club hasn’t won a playoff round since winning it all in 2018, Washington clearly views itself as a win-now outfit that should be in the thick of the Stanley Cup chase.

One of the things that’s helped the Capitals — who built themselves a nice cushion in the standings by going 14-3-5 in the first two months of the season — in recent times is the play of Anthony Mantha, who just happened to return from shoulder surgery for that first March game versus Carolina. Mantha — who scored in Buffalo on a beautiful feed from Backstrom and added an assist versus the Devils — has five goals and eight points in a dozen outings since drawing back into the lineup. Meanwhile, Evgeny Kuznetsov set up Ovechkin — who, in case you haven’t heard, has been great all year — for the game-winning tally on Saturday. The Russian centre has recorded at least a point (15 overall) in all 12 March games, cementing this as a huge bounce-back year for a guy who was the subject of a lot of trade talk the past couple seasons. At the other end of the ice, Vitek Vanecek has taken a step toward claiming the crease ahead of Ilya Samsonov, posting a .920 save percentage while starting nine of the past dozen contests.

Given how hot both teams have been in recent weeks and the fact there’s plenty of post-season know-how on each squad, it’s certainly intriguing to consider the fact Washington and Boston currently occupy the two Eastern Conference wild-card spots. One thing we know to be true of the Stanley Cup playoffs; any team is capable of pulling off a first-round series win. Should any one of the Capitals, Bruins, Hurricanes, Rangers, Penguins, Panthers, Leafs or Tampa Bay win one round, would you truly feel comfortable betting all your nickels they couldn’t win two more? I can’t say I’d be shocked to see any one of those squads in the final versus the Colorado Avalanche.

Surely Washington — after its protracted hiccup — is firmly back in a “Why not us?” mentality now.

Other Takeaways

* Watching Jack Hughes fill the net and dart in and out of defenders on the weekend made me retroactively angry and sad we didn’t get to see NHLers at the Olympics. Hughes had 1-1-2 versus the Caps on Saturday, then potted two more goals and the shootout winner against Montreal on Sunday. Typically, when players kind of lose control of the puck on a shootout attempt after over-handling it, they quickly overcompensate and make a panicked, futile attempt on net. When Hughes had a blip against Sam Montembeault, he simply regained control of the puck and made a YouTube-worthy chip-shot that fluttered over the goalie’s shoulder and into the net.

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Maybe Hughes wasn’t a Team USA lock three months ago, but, wow, would he ever be there now. Since Jan. 31, he has 29 points in 20 contests. That ranks him No. 19 in the league during that two-month span and, for what it’s worth, he’s one of nine Americans among those 19 players compared to four Canadians. Just sayin’.

• You can’t make this Evgenii Dadonov stuff up. In two games with the Golden Knights after the league had to veto a Vegas-to-Anaheim swap on trade deadline day, Dadonov has five points, including his overtime winner on Friday night versus the Chicago Blackhawks.

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• Vegas, in serious danger of missing the playoffs, won both contests and now has four consecutive victories to climb back into a wild-card spot.

Weekend Warrior

While the NCAA was determining its Final Four men’s basketball teams, a sweet 16 Penguins registered at least a point in Pittsburgh’s 11-2 dismantling of the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday. The Pens became the first team since 2003 to put up 11 in a game. Only Marcus Pettersson and Brian Dumoulin failed to get on the score sheet  Don’t worry, we won’t mention the two guys who failed to get in on the scoring party.

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Calgary Flames (40-17-8) Okay, so Pittsburgh one-upped them the next day, but hanging nine on their provincial rivals during a big home-ice romp on Saturday had to feel good for the Flames. Johnny Gaudreau had himself an eight-point weekend after putting up three on Friday versus Arizona and five more against the Oilers, while the 14 goals Calgary and Edmonton combined for made Saturday’s game the highest-scoring “Battle of Alberta” in more than 30 years.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs (41-19-5) A 34-save performance in a win over the Atlantic-leading Panthers on Sunday night was just what the doctor ordered for Petr Mrazek.

3. Edmonton Oilers (36-25-5) Could you imagine if Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith combined to surrender nine goals in Calgary the Saturday before the deadline instead of the first one after? Ken Holland would be getting calls in the third period of the game with offers of an AHL stopper for two first-round picks.

4. Winnipeg Jets (32-25-10) Home-ice overtime wins over old friend Patrik Laine and Columbus on Friday and Arizona on Sunday made it a critical four-point weekend for the Jets as they try to push into a wild card spot. Blake Wheeler on Feb. 11: Two goals in 30 games for the season. Blake Wheeler since: Eight goals and 31 points in 23 contests.

5. Vancouver Canucks (32-26-9) The Canucks’ next four games are against St. Louis and Vegas, the teams presently holding down the two wild-card spots in the West. Though they’ve got a better shot at catching Edmonton for third in the Pacific than St. Louis, it’s likely now or never in terms of Vancouver’s playoff hopes. 

6. Montreal Canadiens (18-37-11) The bad news for the Canadiens: the 2021 Cup finalists endured the indignity of being the first team officially eliminated from the 2022 derby on Friday. The good news: the next day, NCAA prospect Jordan Harris signed after four years at Northeastern and a lot of speculation he might ink with a not-Montreal team of his choosing in the summer.

7. Ottawa Senators (23-36-6) Speaking of D-man signings, highly touted Jake Sanderson put his name on a three-year entry-level deal with the Sens and is expected to make his NHL debut sooner rather than later.

The Week Ahead

• Tuesday has a juicy slate, as the Leafs visit Boston in a — wait for it — possible playoff preview, while the Avs are in Calgary for a Western Conference heavyweight tilt.

• Jonathan Toews is set to play career game No. 1,000 on Thursday in Florida. Given how the back half of his career has gone — missed a whole season with chronic immune response syndrome, Blackhawks plummeting from contender status, analytics fundamentalists dumping on him — it’s easy to forget the following things happened in the first half of his NHL time: captain of three Cup-winners, 2010 playoff MVP, two Olympic gold medals, named best forward at the 2010 Vancouver Games on home ice, 2007 world junior gold thanks to him scoring times in a semi-final shootout win over the U.S. and a triple-gold club member at age 22. This guy could have retired in 2015 and had an entire wing in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

• It’s the Cole Harbour Classic on Saturday, as Sidney Crosby and the Penguins visit Nathan MacKinnon and the Avs.

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