Standing outside the visitors’ locker room at Madison Square Garden on the morning of March 24, Adam Oates recalled the Washington Capitals’ loss at the Pittsburgh Penguins a few days earlier, and not because of the seemingly crushing result. Instead, the coach said it was his team’s best game of the season.
A 2-1 loss that dropped the Caps to 12-16-1 turned out to be the beginning of this improbable run that has Washington in first place in the Southeast Division.
“That was an important game for us because it turned [out] to be a little bit of a launch for us in terms of playing well,” Oates said Thursday. “So many good things came out of that game.”
Players recalled the ups and downs of that contest, including Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen scoring nine seconds after a four-minute Caps power play expired, as a microcosm of the season.
“You realize how hard you worked and to fall 2-1, it leaves kind of a sour taste in your mouth knowing you left it all out there,” defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “I think the guys realized we [didn’t] want that feeling again.”
The mood at practice the following day at Consol Energy Center was businesslike. Oates drilled the power play for more than a half-hour, and there wasn’t much joking around.
Still, Oates accentuated the positives and players understood what they did right.
“I think just an overall 60 minutes,” center Jay Beagle said. “I think we all went away from it saying, ‘If we start playing like that, we’re going to start stringing some wins together here.’ It was a loss, but we gained a lot of confidence from it.”
Part of that stems from containing Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, who won their 10th straight the night of March 19.
“I think part of the competition brought it out in us, playing such a good opponent,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “We had to elevate our game and be solid all over the ice. We didn’t give them, who have a lot of superstars in their lineup, much in the way of offensive chances.”
“They were going on all cylinders,” Oates said. “We played real good hockey. … Kind of a good measuring stick in terms of an upper-echelon team.”
Showing they could skate stride-for-stride with the Penguins, apart from the result, built up some belief, even if it wasn’t obvious from the outside.
“It shows that we can play with anybody,” Oleksy said. “At that time of the season, I think we really needed that too for the guys to realize that we’re right there with the top teams in the league.”
The one thing the Caps wished they could have changed, Brouwer said, was the ineffective four-minute power play. But they went 9-1-1 after that loss, and the power play scored on 10 of its next 37 opportunities.