When the Washington Capitals practiced in Pittsburgh on March 20, the day after what could have been a demoralizing loss to the Penguins, they could have been crushed. Fourteenth in the Eastern Conference, the Southeast Division lead was nine points away and looked like an impossible dream.
A little more than two weeks later, the Caps are in first place and in a playoff position for the first time all season by virtue of their 2-1 shootout victory over the New York Islanders on Thursday night.
“It’s been a tough season in that aspect, always looking up,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “We all knew we’re capable of where we should be, and that’s at the top. You know, this last little while we’ve all focused on what we need to do, and that’s be successful, and we knew if we do that, we’ll be where we want to be at the end of the year.”
There are still 11 games left for the Caps to ensure a fifth Southeast Division title in the past six years. They vaulted into first place thanks to a 6-1-1 stretch that also included the Winnipeg Jets losing five in a row and seven of nine and the Carolina Hurricanes losing 10 of 11.
“The guys will enjoy it for a little bit, but we’ve got a lot of hockey left,” coach Adam Oates said. “I think it’s more important that we focus on the weekend because it obviously can drop just as fast.”
Washington took the elevator ride up from 10 to third in the Eastern Conference by tying the Jets with 38 points; the Caps are in first place because they have played two fewer games. That’s the tiebreaker for now, but that could also mean four points to put some distance ahead of Winnipeg.
“No one’s really broken away in the division,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “It kind of changed hands, Carolina had a great start, Winnipeg had a great middle and it seems as though we’re trending the right way going into the last  games of the season here.”
Thursday night’s win included two big pieces of how the Caps managed to climb so far, so fast. Defenseman Mike Green scored his fifth goal in the past four games, and Holtby continued his brilliant play of late by stopping 35 of 36 shots and all three in the shootout.
Holtby’s biggest stop came late in regulation on Brad Boyes after the Islanders tied the score.
“Holts was a stud,” said forward Brooks Laich, who left the game with an undisclosed injury. “Halfway through the game you could tell he was going to be the first star. He played great. He stole us that one.”
And captain Alex Ovechkin scored the only shootout goal, contributing on the score sheet despite seeing his point streak snap at nine. He and his teammates didn’t do a lot of scoreboard-watching during the game, but once it was over they knew they were in first place.
“Pretty good feelings. Big two points,” Ovechkin said. “To be honest with you I didn’t look at the scores so I just found out right now. It’s good feelings we back in first place. We have to stay there.”
That becomes the challenge now: staving off the Jets, Hurricanes and possibly even the Tampa Bay Lightning with 11 games to go. The Caps play Carolina and Winnipeg once each and Tampa Bay twice, and they have games against the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins.
But just getting to this spot required a lot of effort.