Claiming the Southeast Division title was an impressive feat for the Washington Capitals given their slow start.
Reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, meanwhile, will try to provide a huge boost to the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night as they seek the victory that would reward them with a postseason spot of their own.
In this compressed lockout season, reaching the playoffs - let alone claiming the division - was a steep challenge to the Capitals after a brutal 2-8-1 start under first-year coach Adam Oates.
While playing in the mediocre Southeast gave Washington (26-18-2) some time to right itself, having Alexander Ovechkin return to playing at a superstar level after finding a comfort zone following his switch from right to left wing was a huge factor in tearing to a fifth division title in six seasons.
Ovechkin assisted on Nicklas Backstrom's go-ahead goal before scoring an empty-netter that capped a 5-3 win Tuesday night over Winnipeg that also clinched the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
"He's played great the last couple months, as we talked about his willingness to change positions for the team and for what I think will make him a better player," Oates said of Ovechkin, who has 13 goals and six assists in helping the Capitals win 10 of 11.
"He's had a good two months and he's pulled us along and all 20 guys have gotten better because of it. He's given us a lot of confidence, but like he's said, he's one piece of it - it's 20 guys."
Ovechkin echoed his coaches thoughts, noting the contributions of Matt Hendricks, Mathieu Perreault and Jason Chimera after each scored Tuesday.
"They played unbelievable," he said. "They scored a huge three goals for us. (Chimera) can't score almost all year and right now we need him to score and he's scoring goals. I hope that's going to give him more confidence."
Ovechkin's only off game recently came in Washington's lone loss this month, a 3-1 defeat last Thursday at Ottawa in which he had a minus-3 rating. The Senators (23-16-6) have dropped both their games since that victory, including 3-1 to Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
But Karlsson's return for this game - he fully participated in the team's morning skate Thursday before the team tweeted he will play - from a lacerated Achilles tendon suffered Feb. 13 could be a sorely needed jolt to their offense from the blue line.
Ottawa has scored two goals in its last two games, converted 3 of 44 power plays in losing seven of 11 and failed to tally more than three goals in any of its last 13.
Karlsson, who was 10th in the league in scoring and easily led all defensemen with 78 points in 2011-12, had six goals and four assists in 14 games prior to the injury. He was expected to be sidelined from 4-to-6 months but likely will be with Marc Methot as Ottawa's top defense pairing.
The Senators can also clinch a playoff berth if Winnipeg loses in regulation to Montreal on Thursday night.
Craig Anderson, who made 31 saves in a 3-2 win over Washington in the other meeting Jan. 29, will start for Ottawa. He had 18 saves last Thursday in his third straight victory over the Capitals.
The Associated Press News Service
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