When the Washington Capitals were 2-8-1, Mathieu Perreault had an idea for how to change the team's fortunes.
"I think we have to play a little bit more desperate and tell ourselves that, 'Boy, if we lose this one, we're out of the playoffs,'" the center said Feb. 8. "Like what if I say, 'Tomorrow's game, if we lose it, no matter what, we're out of the playoffs.' I think guys would come hard and play so much harder."
At the time, I thought that idea was crazy. I figured the last thing this team needed was more desperation, to squeeze sticks tighter and put too much emphasis on each game.
But since that horrid start, the Caps are 23-10-1. They could clinch the Southeast Division and corresponding No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference as soon as Tuesday.
And they believe they can beat anyone.
"We feel like we can in our locker room," right wing Troy Brouwer said last week. "We have the utmost confidence in ourselves. We come to play every night. We come to practice every day. It's more of a sense of business in here rather than casual, knowing we can win games. We're working hard to win those games rather than feeling like we deserve to win those games."
Every team wins games it should lose and the other way around. During this streak of nine victories in 10 chances, the Caps have deserved just about every result.
They were outplayed in Thursday's loss at the Ottawa Senators, and their streak snapped at eight. The Caps on Saturday continued their recent dominance of the Montreal Canadiens, improving to 6-0 at Bell Centre since the 2010 playoffs.
More importantly, by winning their 25th game of the season, the Caps reduced their magic number to capture another division title to four. A regulation victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday would do the trick.
It would have been hard to imagine this roll to the verge of the playoffs two months ago. But Brouwer said things changed then, at 2-8-1.
"We didn't like where we were, we didn't want to be where we were," he said. "Bottom of the league at that point. Guys have too much pride in here and we have too good of a team in here to be where we were. And so guys maybe started taking care of their bodies a little bit more, practicing harder. Our practices have been great, crisper, passes on the tape, and I think that's where the turnaround started."
Goaltender Braden Holtby instead pointed to March 21, pregame in Winnipeg, as the moment he sensed a different vibe around the team. There wasn't any joking around, just a focus on the task at hand.
That was the desperation Perreault talked about. With 19 games left, there was just enough time to make the first 11 games a distant memory.
Coupled with a Jets slide and the Carolina Hurricanes' disastrous stretch, the Caps rose to the top of a weak division. The mentality is different than a month ago.
"We're not losing confidence in ourselves. That's the biggest thing," Holtby said. "We had a tendency before to get really down if things weren't going well and frustrated, but now it's the same if we're down as if we're in the lead. We're trying to take the same mentality that we're not going to give up on any game and that's how we're really finding ways to win right now."
Four points in the final three games will ensure a trip to the playoffs and home-ice advantage. Given that the Caps have won 13 of their past 16 games and picked up at least a point in 14 of them, the smart money is on a Game 1 at Verizon Center in a little more than a week.
At that point, the desperation will have to be turned up because even a scintillating run doesn't mean anything once the playoffs begin.
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