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."
In fact, Oates said, the Caps recorded more scoring chances than the high-powered Penguins.
"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.
All a part of the learning process.
"Even if you lose a tough game, there's still some positives out of it that you can take," Brouwer said. "We feel like, the Pittsburgh game, we just played so well, and you're going to lose some games that you deserve to win. It didn't get us down, and we just went on playing well and getting wins."
Oates was worried about a letdown going into back-to-back games at the Winnipeg Jets. Instead, goaltender Braden Holtby noticed a different atmosphere in the locker room.
"It was just like all of a sudden everyone decided to focus in," Holtby said. "Usually I get about half-dressed and I sit there and listen to the room and usually it's jokes or people talking about stuff other than the game. But that game it was very quiet and the only things you heard were what we were doing that night to make sure that we won."
Reeling off back-to-back victories at the Jets was the start of the Caps' climb to first place in the Southeast Division. In explaining what changed, it all began with the Pittsburgh loss.
"It's just maybe the realization of what's going on and what's at stake and the possibilities of not being in the playoffs that, I think, maybe helped us snap out of things a little bit," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It was just one of those times where guys started feeling like we need to pick this up now or pack it in right now."
Seven points out of a playoff spot and nine back of first place on the morning of March 20, it would have been much easier to pack it in and prepare for the 2013-14 season. Instead, the Caps turned one big loss into a series of wins.
"That was a character game for us," Oleksy said. "Usually you say a character win, but although we didn't get the result we wanted, we did a lot of things right within the system and on the ice. So I think that was a character game for our team and kind of when we turned the corner."
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