- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2013

NEW YORK – Alex Ovechkin stood in a victorious locker room March 17 and put the Washington Capitals’ season in perspective. It was simple: a four-game road trip would “end the season … or we continue to fight for the playoffs.”

Three victories and one loss later, most recently a 3-2 shootout win at the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night, the Caps are very much in the playoff hunt. They’re two points back of the final position in the Eastern Conference and five back of Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg with 16 games to play.

“It’s a great step forward for our club right now,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “We’re trying to get ourselves into a playoff spot. We did a great job of it on this road trip.”

Washington picked up six of eight possible points on this trip, winning three in a row to cut its playoff deficit from seven. Anything less than this would have left the Caps in a tough spot.

Outscoring the Winnipeg Jets 10-1 in back-to-back games and then eking out a shootout victory Sunday night, the Caps changed the complexion of their season.

“Absolutely crucial,” forward Brooks Laich said. “It started in Winnipeg and now I think the standard’s set that nothing less than a win is acceptable.”

Forget about playing well and losing, like Adam Oates said they did Wednesday at the Pittsburgh Penguins. That was the best game of the season in the coach’s eyes, and building off it showed a sense of resilience.

Instead of coming out flat at the Jets, the Caps showed a sense of desperation that was rare for much of the past few months.

“Desperation or just solid hockey, I’m not quite sure,” Oates said. “Obviously the points are very important for everybody and we played good.”

Good enough Sunday night to fly home happy, knowing full well that this road trip was a building block and not the clinching of a playoff spot.

“It feels nice, but at the same point we’re still humble,” Laich said. “We’re not going to hurt our arms patting ourselves on the back by any means. We’re still on the outside looking in in the playoff picture.”

This was a good start. Goaltender Braden Holtby, who made 30 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout, sensed something different before the Caps’ first game in Winnipeg.

It carried over to Sunday in New York.

“Even before today you could tell again that it was focus,” Holtby said. “Usually when you’re not focused, you’re fooling around, guys are too light. You can tell right now before the games, guys are ready to play.”

A hot start in the form of two goals in the first 10 minutes was evidence of the Caps’ readiness. Nicklas Backstrom, who later scored the shootout winner, extended the NHL’s No. 1 power play goal streak to five games, and captain Alex Ovechkin tipped a shot past Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

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