With 14 seconds on the clock and in the throes of the McNugget Minute, Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals breathed a collective sigh of relief against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
At 6-on-5, Wilson went top cheese to force overtime, and although the game ended in a 5-4 OT loss, that one point — and a New York Rangers’ loss in regulation — has Washington postseason-bound for the seventh straight season.
“You can never take that for granted,” Lars Eller said of clinching a playoff berth. “That’s the first step you gotta accomplish. To compete for the Cup, you gotta get in, and we can checkmark that.”
Head coach Peter Laviolette agreed with Eller — who scored the team’s Stanley Cup-clinching goal almost three years ago — that having the security of a playoff spot is huge, regardless of where a team stands in its respective division.
“We didn’t talk about [clinching] too much to be honest with you,” Laviolette said, adding, “It’s a hard league. The whole objective is to qualify to play for the Cup, and that’s all in the rearview mirror.”
NOT SO FAST!!! Tie game pic.twitter.com/90xKKWuDFO— x - Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 30, 2021
Punching that ticket to the postseason didn’t come easy by any means. The team was shorthanded yet again and without the services of two of their top performers. Alex Ovechkin missed his third straight game and John Carlson was scratched and listed as day-to-day with a lower-body ailment.
Still, the team’s “next-man up” mentality, as well as the return of Justin Schultz and the play of Daniel Sprong, Trevor van Riemsdyk and more filled the void as Washington got a point out of the playoff-like showdown and remain first in the East with 69 points (the Caps are tied with Pittsburgh but own the tiebreaker).
“Everybody try to have a team game, play for each other... try to be helpful on the ice to each other,” Dmitry Orlov said. “Some guys step up and make some good plays.”
“We got a lot of quality players who are able to step in,” Eller added. “Everybody played really well.”
Washington knows that despite heading to the playoffs for the 13th time in the last 14th seasons, the home stretch will still prove vital as the team looks to not only clean up mistakes, but address the elephant in the room: the situation in net.
Both Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov have made strong cases since the start of March, but these final games will be a deciding factor for both netminders.
“We want to play as many games as possible. We try to push in good way, we don’t want to be, like, bad guys,” Vanecek explained. “It’s coach decision. If he say, ‘Ilya, go in,’ so I try to push him to playing good and if he playing good, I have to play good, too. It’s a good push.”
At the end of the day, the Caps ultimately want to see their playoff run last longer than it did in the “bubble,” and they’re more than up for the challenge.
“Yeah I think everyone’s really excited… you can tell it’s getting to that time of the year,” van Riemsdyk said. “The weather outside’s warming up and usually if you’re playing, that means the games are pretty important.”