- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

With a 2-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Monday, the Washington Capitals won a game in regulation by one goal for the fifth time since Dec. 4, when they began their current stretch of earning a point in 17 of their last 18 games.

It could easily have been a 3-1 victory, if not for an offsides call on an empty-net goal with 24.7 seconds remaining. Likewise, an empty-net goal by Eric Fehr prevented Washington from another one-goal victory in an eventual 4-2 triumph over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 13.

The Capitals‘ resiliency in such games has been critical. They’ve won three games this season by a 2-1 margin; before winning at Carolina on Dec. 4, they had not done so since Feb. 17, 2012.

In all, Washington has won a game by a one-goal margin seven times through 42 games. It did so eight times all of last season and six times in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Even in 2011-12, under coach Dale Hunter — whose defensive style led to a lot of low-scoring games — the Capitals won a game by one goal only six times.

“Those are the games you need to win in the long run, and I think we’ve done a really good job of it,” left wing Marcus Johansson said. “We’ve found a way to close the games out a little bit better, and those games, when it comes down to the end, are maybe the games that will get you into the playoffs — or maybe make you miss the playoffs. It’s huge wins for us, and it’s good to win them.”

The ability to wrap games up in regulation is a blessing for Washington, which has otherwise struggled when extra time, or a shootout, is needed. The Capitals played in a league-record 21 shootouts last season, winning just 10, and have participated in four this season — though just one since the opening month. Of the eight games that have ended in overtime, the Capitals have lost five of them.

Playing so frequently under tight circumstances has helped the Capitals steel themselves for when they arise again. Defenseman Brooks Orpik noticed a certain resignation from his teammates earlier this year when tasked to defend a one-goal lead late; rather than continuing to play with aggression, Washington’s mentality was merely to not give that lead away.

That created, at times, a team-wide sense of trepidation, where players would be fearful of making a play that could backfire and lead to a tying goal. On Nov. 2, for example, the Capitals scored three first-period goals within an eight-minute span to take a two-goal lead, but ended up coughing it up in the second period in an eventual 6-5 loss to the Arizona Coyotes.

“We were getting leads early in the season, too — we just weren’t hanging onto them,” Orpik said. “Now, if we give up a goal or we give up a lead, it doesn’t seem like there’s much panic on the bench now. I think it’s just more the mental approach, and the mental approach is a lot better. Resiliency is definitely a good word. It’s just been a more consistent effort from everybody, too. I think that’s helped out a lot.”

Jay Beagle put the Capitals ahead 7:34 into the first period with a backhander that beat Semyon Varlamov stickside — and then Washington fell into a funk. For five or six minutes, coach Barry Trotz said, the Capitals “got away from that hunt mode” and were content to let Colorado try to answer.

The Avalanche were unable to do so until midway through the second period, when Alex Tanguay scored on the power play, but Alex Ovechkin answered with a power-play goal of his own nearly seven minutes later to help the Capitals reclaim the lead.

Colorado coach Patrick Roy then pulled Varlamov from net with two and a half minutes remaining, but the Capitals held off the extra attacker and would have had the extra cushion had right wing Joel Ward not been whistled for being offsides on John Carlson’s empty-net goal.

“Certainly when you get used to winning, you get used to playing with a lead [and] you get comfortable in those positions,” left wing Brooks Laich said. “That being said, even when you do have a lead … you want to continue to do the same things — putting pucks behind their D, getting out of zone, clean exits on one try, quick ups in the neutral zone and those sorts of things. Those are all habits. If you have a lead, you can really work on your habits consistently.”

Being steadily successful in such situations also has another effect. During the playoffs, teams consistently have to grind out victories, and the dry runs during the winter months can carry forward into the spring.

Orpik recalled his third full season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, in 2006-07, when his team qualified for the postseason for the first time. That team believed it was ready for the postseason after going 47-24-11 and finishing second in the Atlantic Division, but it was blown out in five games by the Ottawa Senators, who were in the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season and emerged as the Eastern Conference champions.

“You’ve just got to get games under your belt,” Orpik said. “I think that’s the same thing with the team — you’ve just got to get games under your belt together and kind of learn each other’s tendencies and learn how to get through certain situations together.”

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