- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2012

TORONTO — The sense of relief was palpable as the Washington Capitals left the ice Saturday night at Air Canada Centre. Their confidence was back.

Two nights and two victories, the first time notching consecutive victories in more than a month.

“It was important,” forward Matt Hendricks said after the 4-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I think Lou Brown says it best in ‘Major League.’ You win two in a row and you win the third one and it’s called a winning streak, right?”

It’s also called winning at the right time, with Monday’s 3 p.m. NHL trade deadline an inevitable crossroads of the season.

The Caps’ recent trend of losing, coupled with the still-uncertain status of star center Nicklas Backstrom led to questions of whether general manager George McPhee would be a buyer, seller or somewhere in between.

And while players like to defer on questions about the trade deadline, perhaps stringing a couple of victories together made the difference.

“We definitely built some momentum going in,” Hendricks said. “When it comes to the trade deadline, everyone kind of views it the same way: It’s part of the job, part of the business, and what happens happens. Hopefully, we swayed some opinions. We’re playing well, and we like our group.”

Changes almost are certain in some form before the league’s moving and shaking is done Monday afternoon. A second-line center might be high on the shopping list, as players such as Columbus’ Samuel Pahlsson and Buffalo’s Paul Gaustad are impending unrestricted free agents.

McPhee told CBC in Canada that he would not make rental moves, only trades that would make sense beyond this season.

“We’ll just see how things go. I don’t know whether we’re going to make a hockey trade or do a rental or do something more permanent or do nothing,” McPhee said Feb. 16. “I don’t know. You have your own ideas, but they may not develop into anything.”

It makes sense for the Capitals to avoid falling into the trap of winning now at the expense of the future. Even though they’re on the cusp on a playoff spot, Backstrom’s concussion and a formidable group of teams atop the Eastern Conference make it hard to envision even a couple of trades turning Washington into an immediate Stanley Cup contender.

But players in the locker room want whatever helps reach that ultimate goal.

“I think for players, no matter what team you’re on, you’re trying to win a Stanley Cup,” said forward Jeff Halpern, who never has been on a team that’s even won a playoff series. “We know that there’s teams winning around us, and just to keep even with them we’ve got to start winning some games. Trade deadline is its own thing. That’s a management decision, an organization decision and as players you just try to take care of your own business.”

That’s what these back-to-back victories over the Montreal Canadiens and Maple Leafs were: taking care of business. Montreal’s languishing in the Eastern Conference cellar, and Toronto has lost eight of its past nine games.

Goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who backstopped both wins said it’s “absolutely great” for the team’s confidence, especially proving it can score first and have some success away from the friendly, red-filled confines of Verizon Center.

For so long, teams around them such as the Leafs and Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers were struggling simultaneously, but if those teams and the Winnipeg Jets go on a run, the Caps know their upcoming homestand is about securing essential victories.

“If you’re not winning, you’re not going to be there,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “You’re not going to be in a playoff spot. If you’re going to think about different teams, how they’re going to play, of course it matters, but it’s all about us. We have to control our games and we have to control how we’re going to play next game.”

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