It’s really nothing new for the Washington Capitals to win the Southeast Division. Tuesday night they clinched their seventh title and fifth in the past six years.
Old hat? Not quite this season, if only because of a 2-8-1 start that coach Adam Oates called “lousy” and that made the Caps’ climb decidedly uphill.
“I think the beginning of the year when it was new coaching staff, new system, we change our lines and we just don’t know how to play,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Of course we know how to play, but you know what I mean when I say that. We need some time to realize how we have to play. It take us probably 15 games, maybe 16 games to realize it. We try to find the lineup, we try to find good chemistry and it started working after 15, 16 games.”
After 16 games, the Caps were 5-10-1 and last in the Eastern Conference. That was a trying time for Oates and the Caps.
“We never expected this start and we’ve gone through all the excuses as to why. I think they’re legitimate excuses, but needless to say, we didn’t expect this kind of start,” Oates said. “The guys were fantastic about it. No one complained. Nobody pointed fingers. They just kept their heads down and we gradually turned it. We saw some signs kind of the first time we went into Ottawa, New Jersey, Toronto. We played good hockey. We didn’t get the results we wanted, but I think guys saw signs of it, and you know, gradually it started to turn for us.”
“I think we believed in ourselves,” alternate captain Nicklas Backstrom said. “We talked a lot in the locker room and we kept everything for ourselves. We worked hard every day, then we started winning games and you get confidence. And then we just kept rolling. That’s what it’s all about.”
Goaltender Braden Holtby, who tried to downplay the division title, acknowledged that winning the Southeast was the Caps’ regular-season goal. It “just took a little bit of a rough path to get there,” he said.
Because of that rough patch, the Caps celebrated Tuesday’s victory over the Winnipeg Jets more than normal. But it was hard for forward Matt Hendricks to explain his postgame emotions.
“It’s a great feeling,” Hendricks said. “Through all this, I felt like we were going to come around sooner or later, and it worked out just like we had kind of envisioned.”
As recently as March 21, the Caps went into their first of back-to-back games at Winnipeg down nine points in the division race. They trailed by as many as 10 to the Carolina Hurricanes earlier in the month.
“We did show a lot of character this year, I think,” center Mathieu Perreault said. “Our big guys, Ovi, Backy, the second half of the season they really stepped it up and that’s what we needed. Throughout all of our lineup, everybody stepped up their game and this is what we’re going to need for the playoffs.”
Playoffs begin next week, and players will insist Wednesday that their focus is already there.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t soak up the enjoyment of one last Southeast Division championship, especially considering that it looked unlikely not too long ago.
“I always think we had the team to do this,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “We’ve been on runs before. I know what we’ve got in here. I didn’t think it was impossible, that’s for sure.”