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.
It was the kind of start the Caps have prided themselves on lately, and players said not much changed to spark this three-game streak. But when the Rangers tied the score at 2 and then Washington failed to score on a five-on-three power play, one major change was visible.
Oates said his team did a better job of handling “adversity.” It showed.
“Pittsburgh when we had that four-minute power play all of a sudden then they come down and score,” he said. “The crowd was crazy, they kill a big penalty and we didn't let it break us down. We went right back to work and [played] five-on-five good hockey.”
Backstopped by some Holtby saves, the Caps didn't fold as the Rangers outshot them 20-9 in the final two periods. Brouwer had a chance to end it in regulation, but he and his teammates had to settle for overtime and then the shootout.
The Rangers picked up a point and moved into eighth in the East, while the Caps finished the night in 10th.
“It would've been real nice to not let them get a point, especially since we're trying to chase them in the standings here and we don't want to give them anything,” Brouwer said. “[But] we're not going to complain about two points.”
No one's complaining about six points on the road, either, especially after the Caps went 4-8-1 away from Verizon Center before setting off for Pittsburgh.
“It was a big week for us. It’s not just that we got six out of eight points; we played better as a team,” Backstrom said. “I think that’s the effort you've got to do if you’re going to fight for a playoff spot. You’ve just got to keep going here, keep working for 60 minutes every game, and hopefully you get success.”
The Caps found success but Oates knows his team must “turn the page” and prepare for the pesky New York Islanders on Tuesday. Another game doesn't feel like another chance for the season to fall by the wayside; instead, as Laich said last week, it's an “opportunity” to earn valuable points.
“You can feel it in here, we’re starting to find a groove, starting to find our game, growing with confidence and players are figuring out their roles on the team and we feel really good with our game right now,” Laich said. “If we stick with it, stay healthy, we’re going to be a dangerous team.”
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