Ovechkin locks up scoring title, Capitals beat Devils 5-3
WASHINGTON (AP) — Alex Ovechkin heard the chants loud and clear.
“We want 50! We want 50!”
He didn’t need that extra encouragement. Ovechkin scored twice to finish with an NHL-leading 49 goals and played almost the final two minutes of the Washington Capitals’ 5-3 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night in each team’s regular-season finale trying to reach 50 for the eighth time in his career.
The Russian superstar will have to settle for his seventh Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer and hopes his recent run continues in the playoffs, where the Metropolitan Division-champion Capitals will open against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“Effort was there, and you can see I’m ready for playoffs in pretty good shape,” Ovechkin said after a playing 6:04 of the final 8:10. “Still have a pretty good chance at the end. It is what it is. Whatever. The most important thing ahead of us, and second season right now starts in a couple days.”
Washington won 12 of its final 15 games, and Ovechkin strengthened his Hart Trophy case with nine goals and six assists over that time. At 32, he’s the oldest player to lead the NHL in goals since Phil Esposito in 1974-75.
Ovechkin became the 13th player and first since Mike Gartner in 1990-91 to score exactly 49 goals in a season. His teammates did their best trying to get him to 50, and Ovechkin attempted 18 shots and got eight on net in pursuit of the milestone.
“We look for him a little bit more than usually, but I don’t know,” said center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who assisted on Ovechkin’s 48th goal to reach 56 for the season. “I don’t think he’s sad about he didn’t get 50, but 49 is still a good number.”
Losing in regulation sends New Jersey to the Atlantic bracket in the Eastern Conference to face the division champion: either the Boston Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s the Bruins if they beat Florida on Sunday night, and the Lightning if they don’t.
“We like our matchup against anybody,” Devils center Brian Boyle said. “I think we match up well against anyone. We believe in what we got going on here. We earned the right to be in. It’s been a good season. The fun starts now.”
The Devils didn’t go all-out to try to move up in the standings, resting MVP front-runner Taylor Hall, first-line winger Kyle Palmieri, top-six center Travis Zajac, No. 1 defenseman Sami Vatanen and starting goaltender Keith Kinkaid with an eye toward the playoffs. Trade-deadline pickup Patrick Maroon had a goal and two assists, and rookie Nico Hischier and Miles Wood each scored for New Jersey.
“There’s a reason that you got here,” coach John Hynes said. “You have to have a strong identity, which we do. You have to be able to play to that.”
The Capitals’ identity is coming into focus as they go into the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season feeling good about their game. Nicklas Backstrom, Michal Kempny and Andre Burakovsky also scored against New Jersey, and Braden Holtby stopped 23 of the 26 shots in his final chance to show he deserves to be Washington’s Game 1 starting goaltender over Philipp Grubauer.
Holtby is 14-2-2 with a 2.62 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in his career against Columbus, which lost to Nashville in its final game while resting stars Artemi Panarin, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski and two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
“They’re a good young team and they have a great goaltender, but for me it doesn’t matter against who you play,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s just like a fun time. You prepare all year for this moments.”
NOTES: The Capitals rested RW T.J. Oshie, who has been dealing with a lower-body injury. C Jay Beagle missed his third consecutive game with an upper-body injury. ... With the primary assist on Kempny’s goal, Capitals F Shane Gersich picked up his first NHL point in his third game. ... Ovechkin, Capitals D Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson and Hischier played all 82 games this season.
Devils: Open at the Bruins or Lightning in their first playoff appearance since 2012.
Capitals: Host the Blue Jackets to start the first round.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey