The butterflies were going for defenseman Karl Alzner on Tuesday. The Washington Capitals already had lost two in a row with a showdown against the reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins looming.
"We were setting ourselves up for something really good or really bad," Alzner said.
But the Caps have played their best against the NHL's elite all season and go into the All-Star break on a high note thanks to a 5-3 victory. Not only that, but they will spend the next few days basking in the glow of being in first place in the Southeast Division.
"You see where we are in the standings, every two points is huge," coach Dale Hunter said. "The guys buckled down, and they won the game. They wanted to win it. They really wanted to win bad."
Alzner was right when he said the Capitals could have been running into something "really bad" - a matchup with the rugged Bruins without the suspended Alex Ovechkin and injured Nicklas Backstrom.
But instead of letting Boston set a physical tone, the Caps hit back and used speed (Mathieu Perreault's hat trick and Cody Eakin's first goal since December) to pull off an impressive win at home.
"It's huge. You look at Boston, Stanley Cup champs last year. One of the best teams in the league right now. They're going to be one of the best teams the rest of the season, that's for sure," forward Matt Hendricks said. "For us to win and have that momentum going into the break feeling somewhat good about ourselves ...now we can just focus in on the game at hand"
After what goaltender Tomas Vokoun called "a couple of stinkers" last week and Sunday's overtime loss in Pittsburgh, the Capitals were clinging to first place.
By beating the Bruins, they ensured they wouldn't be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
"You don't want to be on the outside, just because the things they say," Vokoun said. "Teams don't usually make the playoffs if they're outside at the All-Star break."
Of last year's 16 playoff teams, only one was not in a playoff spot at the break. The Buffalo Sabres went on a second-half run to get in before losing in the first round.
With the Florida Panthers stumbling, the Caps might even be considered favorites to capture the Southeast for the fifth straight season despite a tumultuous few months.
The whole mood changed after the victory over the Bruins.
"When you lose a game, you lose a game and it's in the back of your mind," Perreault said. "Now ... we're going on a vacation on a win."
Boston wasn't just the defending champion but also in first place in the Eastern Conference. This was indeed a "measuring stick" game for Washington, whose preseason expectations were to be competing for the top spot with the likes of Boston and Pittsburgh.
"We answered really well, and the guys are happy with the result," Alzner said. "It doesn't get too much better than that."
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