WASHINGTON -- Surely, if the Washington Capitals were going to make the playoffs, it would come down to the wire. Their start was so terrible that even an optimistic die-hard would figure that, with the right breaks, perhaps they could steal a berth in the final game of the regular season.
Yet here they are, post-season-bound with two games to spare, quite the achievement for Alex Ovechkin and first-year coach Adam Oates. Tuesday night's 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets clinched the Southeast Division for the Capitals, who were next-to-last in the Eastern Conference as recently as March 21.
"I remember 20 games ago looking at the schedule," said Mathieu Perreault, one of five Capitals to score a goal Tuesday. "Like, 'Man, we're probably going to have to go 16-4 to get in' -- and basically did it. It almost looked impossible if you look back 20 games, but this team has got so much character, and they found a way to do it."
If the Capitals win their final two, they will indeed finish with 16 wins in 20 games, but that would be gravy at this point. They're in the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, a run that includes five Southeast titles. As a bonus, they will leapfrog several teams with better records and enter the playoffs as the conference's No. 3 seed for winning their division, even if it is the weakest division in the NHL.
"We had a lousy start," Oates said. "And I don't think many of us thought we would come this far. But we obviously put some really good hockey together, and the guys have grown and it's obviously a good feeling right now."
The Capitals blew a two-goal lead, survived a pair of replay reviews and exhaled deeply when defencemen John Erskine cleared two shots off the goal line. They also had to kill off a power play with a one-goal lead late in the game, but they held to win for the 10th time in 11 games.
Ovechkin scored his league-leading 31st goal -- an empty-netter in the final minute -- and Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera and Nicklas Backstrom also scored. Braden Holtby made 24 saves for the Capitals.
The loss keeps the Jets in ninth place in the East, one spot away from the playoffs but with slim chances of moving up because they have only one game remaining. They trail the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators by one point, but the Rangers have two games left and the Senators have three.
"It was basically our Game 7 in the playoffs," said Nik Antropov, who scored Winnipeg's third goal. "And it's frustrating to lose that way."
Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler also scored for the Jets, who had won six of seven but were playing the second half of a road back-to-back after beating the Buffalo Sabres on Monday.
"We played too cute," Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said. "There was no way we were going to be able to match their skill level and to play the way that they played. We had to do some things that to me that we didn't do."
Hendricks and Chimera gave the Capitals a 2-0 lead after the first period, but the score would have been tied if not for Erskine, who cleared Bryan Little's shot off the line when Holtby was caught out of position and later arrived just in time to get his stick on a bouncing puck that had dribbled down the goaltender's back on a tip by Aaron Gagnon. The puck was some 90 per cent across the line -- but not all the way, and the no-goal call was upheld by video review.
"He's our third goalie right now," Ovechkin said with a smile.
The Jets did pull even in the second period when Kane and Wheeler scored, but it took just 37 seconds for the Capitals to regain the lead when Backstrom's right skate neatly redirected a centring pass from Ovechkin. The replay review determined that Backstrom didn't use a deliberate kicking motion, and the goal was upheld.
Perreault doubled the lead by putting in a rebound late in the second period, but Antropov beat Holtby stick-side with 8:10 remaining in the third to pull the Jets within one.
Perrault was whistled for high sticking with 5:16 remaining, but the Capitals killed off the penalty without allowing a shot. Ovechkin capped the celebration with the empty-netter, prompting chants of "M-V-P!" throughout the sold-out arena.
"The way we started, there were a lot of doubters," Hendricks said. "Our fans were against us a little bit, the media was hard on us a little bit. But we came and did what we set out to do."
NOTES: Antropov returned after missing eight games with a lower body injury. Jets F Kyle Wellwood was out with a significant injury to his right hand from blocking a shot during Monday's win at Buffalo. ... Ovechkin set an NHL record with his goal, although it's one that probably deserves an asterisk. It was his 13th in the month of April, an accomplishment made easier because the lockout-modified schedule is extending the regular season deeper into the month than usual. The previous record of 12 was set by Mario Lemieux in 1993 and tied by Winnipeg's Alex Zhamnov in 1995.