PITTSBURGH — Reeling from their fifth loss in seven games, several Washington Capitals players sat in the visitors’ locker room at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday and found positives.
Center Nicklas Backstrom said, “I think we were the better team out there,” and coach Adam Oates called the game at the Pittsburgh Penguins “winnable.”
“You can look around and I can say that everyone was really working hard,” defenseman John Carlson said. “That’s all you really ask for; maybe just a few more bounces and it would’ve been a different game.”
Goaltender Braden Holtby wanted nothing of that kind of talk. At 12-16-1, 25 points and seven out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the Caps should be done considering moral victories are worth a hill of beans in this crazy league.
“We’re not the better team if we lose,” Holtby said. “I think that’s an excuse we’ve been making all year. We say we play good, just bounces didn’t go our way.
“If we don’t win, we’re not the better team. Simple as that. … Bottom line is we have to win games. I don’t care if we’re the worst team or the better team. It doesn’t matter on the score sheet. We need to win games.”
Harsh words given how often the postgame refrain has been about good things and no points to show for it. Oates knows the measure of success is winning, but all along he has been emphasizing the need to make progress.
“That’s a Knute Rockne speech that’s not real. You can only play,” Oates said. “If we lose, we’re not happy about it. If you win, good. The more you play correctly, you win more games.”
Forward Brooks Laich and others Wednesday agreed with Holtby’s assertion that there’s no room for playing well and losing.
“We were kind of talking about this five games into the season. We had a couple good games and we’d end up losing,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “It didn’t matter then, it doesn’t matter now.
“In such a short season and such an important, tight condensed schedule that we have here on the road, moral victories, yeah they’re good when you look at the video and you see what you’ve done, but it doesn’t get you anywhere in the standings, and that’s what matters right now.”
Going into back-to-back games at the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday and Friday that could determine whether Washington can keep alive its playoff hopes, the struggle is coming back from a loss that isn’t easy to forget about. It wasn’t like the Caps got blown out of the building and could throw it out; this was one of the better 60-minute efforts of the season and they came up empty.
“You have no choice but to bounce back,” center Mike Ribeiro said. “Obviously the next two will be big for us, can keep us in the race or it can push us down and out of it.”
In an 82-game season, Brouwer said, it’s easier to swallow games like that, when the Caps outplay their opponent and the result isn’t there.
“In a shortened season, it’s just magnified so much more because you have to get those points,” he said. “It’s even worse because of the situation that we’re in on the outside looking in of the playoff race.”
To reach eighth place in the East, the Caps must not only close the seven-point gap that exists but jump over six other teams. That’s an even bigger challenge because all intraconference play means a conference foe is getting points in every game.
“Other teams, what they do, is entirely out of our control,” Laich said. “The only thing that we can manage is what we do in this locker room and prepare for our games. That’s why when games like the doubleheader in Winnipeg do come around, that you really get excited for those games.”
Laich called it an opportunity to cut into the Jets’ lead atop the Southeast Division. Winning that division might still be the easiest avenue to a playoff berth, but with just 19 games left, the nine-point deficit is daunting.
Two losses at the Jets would be devastating to Washington’s division and playoff hopes. Ideally, the Caps would want back-to-back victories in regulation to climb the ladder, but struggling teams can’t be choosy.
“We’ve got to make sure that we get points no matter what the cost is,” Brouwer said. “If it takes 65 minutes, if it takes a shootout, we have to start getting points. … The bottom line is we’ve got to help ourselves by getting points any way we can.”