WASHINGTON – For the third time in three tries this season, Daniel Alfredsson and the Ottawa Senators used their stingy style of play to beat the Washington Capitals.
The latest victory assured the Senators of a trip to the playoffs.
And guess who Ottawa might face in a best-of-seven series starting next week?
Sergei Gonchar scored a power-play goal 47 seconds into overtime on Erik Karlsson's second assist of his successful and sooner-than-anticipated return from a torn Achilles tendon, and Ottawa beat Washington 2-1 on Thursday night, putting the teams in line for a possible postseason meeting.
"This is what you fight for all year — to get into the playoffs," Alfredsson said. "No matter who you play, it's going to be a tough series. Everybody poses different challenges, and I think we're the same way: We pose different challenges to other teams."
Particularly, it seems, the Capitals.
Ottawa swept the teams' season series, giving up a combined four goals in the three games and limiting Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin to one point. That happened to come Thursday, when his league-leading 32nd goal tied the game 1-1 about 8½ minutes into the third period.
This time, the Southeast Division champion Capitals had nothing at stake. They already are locked into the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
But according to Senators goalie Craig Anderson, who made 19 saves, the Capitals "wanted to prove something in case we do play them in the first round."
The Senators, who have two games left, moved up to sixth in the East. If they remain there, Ottawa would face the Capitals, who have won 10 of their past 12 games — with the only losses coming against the Senators.
"If we end up playing them, we'll be ready," Washington's first-year coach Adam Oates said.
The overtime wins Thursday by the Senators and New York Rangers eliminated the Winnipeg Jets from the playoff chase. While the eight Eastern Conference postseason participants are now set — although their exact order is not — there are still three teams seeking the final two spots in the West: Detroit, Minnesota and Columbus.
Ottawa had lost its previous two games.
"I'm just glad to put all the doubters behind us," Anderson said. "We lost a couple games there ... and I think that was kind of the talk: Are we going to fold the tent and go home? But I think we all kind of strapped on the belt and went to work and found ways to make people believers."
The Capitals secured their sixth consecutive playoff appearance with a 5-3 victory over Winnipeg on Tuesday.
"We just came out flat," Washington defenseman Mike Green said. "I don't know what it is the last couple times we've played against them. But it's the way it's gone."
For Karlsson, last season's Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's top defenseman, this was his first game since Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke stepped on the back of his leg on Feb. 13.
Karlsson played a game-high 27-plus minutes against Washington, demonstrating just how valuable he is.
His shot from barely inside the blue line was redirected by Jakob Silfverberg past Michal Neuvirth 12½ minutes into the second period to put Ottawa ahead 1-0. And in the extra period, Karlsson's pass set up ex-Capitals defenseman Gonchar's winner.
"I would have been happy if I sat in the stands and we would have won this game, as well, I think, and that's the main goal," Karlsson said. "I'm going to have to work on my stuff, and as long as this team keeps winning, I'm going to be happy."
Karlsson originally was expected to miss the rest of the season after surgery, but recently returned to practice. He sat out 31 games, but now has a chance to try to get into game shape ahead of the playoffs.
"Obviously, our team was a different team with him on the ice, and the things that he can do that others can't do. He's a very special player," Senators coach Paul MacLean said. "He's done, obviously, a ton of work."
Silfverberg briefly stayed down on the ice with about three minutes left after appearing to take a glove to the face from Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy. No penalty was called.
The game was chippy throughout, including a scrum involving eight players along the boards earlier in the third period. The first period had a handful of near-fights and some late hits.
Capitals forward Mike Ribeiro was sent to the box twice in the final five minutes of regulation, and teammate Jason Chimera was given a 10-minute misconduct late.
"Obviously we don't really want that," Oates said. "But I think the guys were a little frustrated at that point."
His team could face more of that in the playoffs.
NOTES: Playing his 600th NHL game, Ovechkin scored for the fourth time in his past three games. ... Ottawa plays at home against Philadelphia on Saturday, and at the Bruins on Sunday in a game rescheduled because of the Boston Marathon bombings. ... The Capitals finish the regular season Saturday against visiting Boston.
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