In the minutes following the Washington Capitals’ seventh straight victory, players emphasized what went wrong in blowing a four-goal lead for the first time all season. But defenseman Mike Green said Saturday after beating Tampa Bay that waking up with two more points is “all that matters.”
Lessons might be learned from falling apart, but Green is right. Two more points put the Caps four up on the Winnipeg Jets in the Southeast Division race with six games left in the regular season.
“We’ve come a long way,” coach Adam Oates said. “It gives the guys a chance to breathe a little bit. And we have a good schedule going down the stretch, so we put ourselves in a decent position.”
Decent position might be the understatement of the year. The Caps are 21-9-1 since a horrid start, going from the dregs of the Eastern Conference to playoff position.
“I think we’re playing good hockey right now,” left wing Aaron Volpatti said. “You’ve got to peak at the right time, and hopefully we can keep rolling here.”
The Caps have won 11 of their past 13 games, a stretch that turned up the likelihood of playoff hockey in the District this spring. But the final six games are all against teams in the hunt, including five versus those in playoff position.
That’s what Oates means by a “good” schedule: facing the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Jets and Boston Bruins once apiece and the Ottawa Senators twice. Four of the final six are at home, where the Caps have won four of their past five.
Meanwhile, Winnipeg plays three more games against opponents out of the race and also has four of its final six at home. That’s plenty of incentive for the Caps not to let up.
“We’ve got to keep going,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “It’s one of those things that they’re going to keep pressing, we’re going to keep pressing. Winnipeg’s got a lot of home games and stuff like that. We know that. We know where we are, we’ve been playing really well these last couple games to get us here, and so we’ve just got to keep our foot on the pedal.”
Saturday’s 6-5 overtime victory against the Lightning was the Caps’ game in hand over the Jets. Five of the next six times Washington plays, Winnipeg does the same day, meaning there’s plenty of scoreboard-watching in the near future.
“Standings right now are important and I hope different teams [are] going to play with them and going to help us a little bit,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “But it’s all about us right now.”
The Caps control their playoff chances thanks to this run of success. With six games remaining and 48 points, they figure to need six points to get in.
Winning the Southeast for the fifth time in six years could require beating the Jets at Verizon Center on April 23. But for now, players are focusing on Tuesday’s opponent, the Maple Leafs, and keeping an eye on the Jets’ progress.
“You look at the standings. There’s six games left; you’re looking at teams,” defenseman Jack Hillen said. “At this point of the year every team’s doing that, that’s still in contention, and you’re just looking at it and trying to pick up points when you can.”
Since starting 2-8-1, the Caps have 43 points in 31 games. That would be a 67-point pace in this 48-game season and 114 points over 82 games.
Washington is starting to look like a team even the East’s elite don’t want to see in a seven-game playoff series.
“Hopefully we can get a playoff spot and then I don’t know if teams are going to be afraid or not,” center Nicklas Backstrom said recently. “Hopefully.”
If the Caps keep rolling in the season’s final two weeks, that momentum, coupled with home-ice advantage, is nice to have. Winnipeg isn’t far back and can’t be ignored, but players’ focus on the task at hand has worked so far.
So there’s no reason to stop now as the Southeast race hits the home stretch.
“We want to win them all. We want to progressively get better each game,” Green said. “And that’s it. We’ve been keeping our eye on other teams, but at the end of the day all you can control is what you can control and that’s what’s in that dressing room and in this organization. And we’ll let the rest do its work.”