On its face, the Capitals' game against the Senators Thursday was the most meaningless game of their 48-game season.
They had clinched a postseason berth two days earlier, and their position as the third seed in the Eastern Conference had been solidified. With the crushing weight of expectations temporarily lifted from their shoulders, the Capitals would take the ice at Verizon Center lighter than they had been all season.
Coach Adam Oates, however, spelled out the mission of Thursday's game after his team wrapped up its pregame skate: Show the Senators -- a potential playoff opponent who had defeated the Capitals twice this season -- who they really are, something he felt they hadn't truly done yet.
"We’ve played a certain type of hockey lately that’s been very productive to us," Oates said. "I want to make sure we have that type of game tonight to let them know this is the way we play, just in case.”
To its credit, Washington played a better game than it did against Ottawa last Thursday, a "sloppy" 3-1 loss that snapped its eight-game winning streak. But the Senators continued to vex the Capitals Thursday as their stingy defense neutralized any prolonged offensive threats.
The Senators outshot the Capitals 25-4 over the final 20:47 of the game, capped off by defenseman Sergei Gonchar's power-play blast from inside the right circle that lifted them to a 2-1 overtime postseason-clinching victory.
“They came to play tonight," defenseman Mike Green said, emphatically adding that the Capitals certainly did not accomplish Oates's goal. "We just came out flat. I don’t know what it is the last couple times we’ve played against them, but it’s the way it’s gone."
The Senators are the second-lowest scoring team in both the Eastern Conference and NHL, having only netted 107 goals through 46 games.
However, that can be attributed to the injury-induced absences of their top two leading scorers from last season: forward Jason Spezza and defenseman Erik Karlsson, the latter of whom returned from an Achilles injury Thursday and earned primary assists on both of his team's goals.
Ottawa, however, makes up for its anemic offense with one of the NHL's toughest defenses, allowing only 2.09 goals per game, second-fewest league-wide.
A solid goaltender in Craig Anderson, who has stymied the Capitals all season (3-0-0, 1.33 GAA, .944 SV% in three games), surely does not help either.
“Yeah, they’re stingy," Oates said. "It is frustrating when you’re not getting many chances. They got good ‘D’, a good goalie. It was not the most fun game to play, probably not the most fun to watch, but that’s the way a team like that is."
With three days left in the regular season, there are still four teams -- the Senators, Maple Leafs, Islanders and Rangers -- that could claim the sixth seed and a first-round matchup with the Capitals.
Ottawa, which statistically is the most likely to fill that spot, is the only one that Washington has not defeated this season.
"Well, it would be a good time to start," Green said.
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