NHL playoff race heats up as the Capitals, Flyers and Red Wings are vying for 2 spots in the East

Chants of “Let’s Go, Red Wings!” filled the arena in downtown Washington before the home fans drowned them out. A Tuesday night in March felt like a Game 7 in May because of what was at stake.

“Every game feels like a playoff game at this point,” Capitals center Nic Dowd said after his team’s 4-3 overtime win. “The next game’s going to feel the exact same way.”

That’s the way it is right now in the NHL’s Eastern Conference with three teams — Washington, Detroit and the Philadelphia Flyers — vying for the final two playoff spots and separated by just three points in the standings. While the top eight qualifying in the West is set, barring an unforeseen collapse by defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas, all eyes are on the East with three weeks left in the regular season.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Detroit’s Alex DeBrincat said. “As a hockey player, you want to be competitive at this time of year.”

Going into Thursday, the Flyers (82 points, nine games left) are third in the Metropolitan Division, the Capitals (81 points, 11 games left) hold the second and final wild-card spot and the Red Wings (79 points, 10 games left) are the first team out. New Jersey (76 points, nine games left) and the New York Islanders (75 points, 11 games left) would need some significant help to get in.

A look at how the leading three postseason candidates in the East got here:

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

We’ll get to Alex Ovechkin in a bit, because he is the face of the franchise and could be the greatest goal-scorer in hockey history. He’s a significant part of this, but the biggest reason the Caps beat the odds over the past month by getting back into the race is goaltender Charlie Lindgren, who is 8-2-0 in his last 10 games with a 2.12 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

“You can see why this team is where they’re at,” Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde said. “Their goaltender, no one’s playing better in the league right now. They just feed off him. The confidence he brings to that group, you can tell.”

That isn’t lost on Lindgren’s teammates, who have watched him beat out 2022 Cup champion Darcy Kuemper for the starting job and make one 10-bell save after another to keep them in tight games.

“He’s a rock for us back there,” winger T.J. Oshie said. “Chucky has been, in my opinion, the backbone of why we’re still in this race and why we still got a chance to go to the postseason.”

OK, back to Ovechkin. After starting the season with eight goals in his first 43 games, he scored eight in a five-game span from March 16-24, becoming the first player 38 or older to do that, according to SportRadar.

“He’s probably the straw that’s stirring this drink,” said Winnipeg associate coach Scott Arniel, who was on the staff in Washington for four seasons. “When he gets going, that team is obviously up and running, and no disrespect to anyone else, but he’s a force out there.”

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

No disrespect to 31-goal scorer and All-Star Travis Konecny, No. 1 defenseman Travis Sanheim or young winger Owen Tippett, but John Tortorella probably will be named coach of the year if the Flyers get in.

Question his methods, like healthy-scratching captain Sean Couturier or refusing to leave the bench immediately after getting ejected, but they’re working for a blue-collar team in Philly that is winning because of Tortorella in spite of a lack of top-end talent.

“We’ve been real consistent in how we’ve had to play,” Tortorella said. “The biggest thing we’ve really tried to concentrate on was be connected in all three zones, and that has really helped us grind away here.”

Goalie Samuel Ersson also deserves some credit for being pressed into the starting role at age 24 after Carter Hart took an indefinite leave of absence pending a sexual assault charge against him in Canada. As Tortorella put it, “Things happened this year that put our goaltending situation into a little bit of a state of flux,” and Ersson has handled the heavy workload about as well as could be expected under the circumstances without a reliable backup.

Their blue line also has been decimated by injuries to Rasmus Ristolainen, Nick Seeler and Jamie Drysdale and the trade of pending free agent defenseman Sean Walker, given the Flyers’ commitment to building for the future. General manager Danny Briere went out and acquired veteran Erik Johnson to stop the bleeding, but it has been the young players stepping up on the back end more than anything: Egor Zamula playing more minutes and rookies Ronnie Attard and Adam Ginning coming up from the minors to fill in.

“I don’t think they’re nervous at all,” Tortorella said, acknowledging he has been surprised. “They’ve handled themselves so well just not being overwhelmed with the situation.”

DETROIT RED WINGS

After captain Dylan Larkin was injured March 2 in Detroit’s second consecutive loss and was ruled out for two weeks, Lalonde believed his team was better equipped to handle the absence of the No. 1 center than when it lost three of four without him earlier this season.

The Red Wings dropped their next five to go on a seven-game skid that threatened to derail their hopes of ending the franchise’s seven-year postseason drought. They’ve steadied the ship, picking up three of a possible six points, since Larkin returned.

“He’s our best player,” DeBrincat said. “He’s the heartbeat of the team. Having him back is great. Just having him in the locker room’s great. Obviously on the ice, his skill takes over and he does everything great.”

In the meantime, Patrick Kane, the three-time Cup champion who chose the Wings over other interested suitors for his return from hip surgery, has scored four goals in six games, including two game winners. It would be crazy to overlook Kane’s impact in Motor City.

“No words needed for Kaner,” defenseman Moritz Seider said. “I think that’s pretty obvious.”

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