WASHINGTON (AP) — Alex Ovechkin heard Capitals fans chanting, “We want 50!” after scoring his 49th goal of the season.
“Next game,” Ovechkin said.
The next game could bring milestones for Ovechkin and Washington, which beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 Tuesday night to move to the verge of clinching a playoff berth. The defending Stanley Cup champions are a victory away from their 11th playoff appearance in the last 12 seasons.
“That’s why we play 82 games, to clinch the playoffs,” Ovechkin said after adding to his NHL-leading goal total. “Both teams understand we need the points. I don’t know how the different teams played, I didn’t look at that, but that was important.”
The Capitals beating the Hurricanes in regulation and results elsewhere made it a great night for Washington and a bad one for Carolina. The Columbus Blue Jackets’ defeat of the New York Islanders allowed the Capitals to extend their lead atop the Metropolitan Division to three points, and that, coupled with the Montreal Canadiens’ victory over the Florida Panthers, allowed those teams to gain ground on the Hurricanes.
“You can’t look for help,” Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said. “That’s not the way you do it. You take care of your own business and if someone loses, great. But you go into everything assuming you need to win because every other team is going to win, too.”
Looking for their fourth consecutive division title, the Capitals again came away with two points when there was a chance they’d fall into second place.
“We don’t care too much about the standings,” said goaltender Braden Holtby, who made 27 saves. “We’re focused on trying to win a game, so we’re not letting anything get in our head, saying we must win this or that or whatever.”
Ovechkin’s go-ahead goal 4:31 into the third period put him one away from joining Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy as the only players in league history with 50 in eight different seasons. With his 656th career goal, the Russian superstar tied Brendan Shanahan for 13th on the all-time list, but has to wait for No. 50 this season.
“It would be nice to get it,” Ovechkin said. “But we still have five games. I have lots of chances to score tonight, but finally I get one because I think last couple games I didn’t use my chances. It was important goal and I’m happy with the win.”
Countryman Evgeny Kuznetsov assisted on goals by T.J. Oshie, Ovechkin and John Carlson to give him three on his bobblehead night. Nicklas Backstrom added an empty-netter as Washington won its second consecutive game.
“I wish every player on the team have a night like that,” Kuznetsov said. “Bobblehead is special. Of course, when your organization does something for you and fans cheering for you, you want to give them back something. The best thing we give them the win.”
The Hurricanes had their two-game winning streak snapped despite 24 saves from Petr Mrazek and a goal by Dougie Hamilton during a delayed penalty. Carolina still leads Montreal and Columbus in the race for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, but a flat effort Tuesday didn’t help.
“They were good. We were not,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Put those two together, and we really had no chance in that game. That’s what it felt like the whole way.”