Joey Crabb pointed to Feb. 8 as the day the Washington Capitals’ season turned around. They just got smacked by the Pittsburgh Penguins, a third straight loss that dropped them to 2-8-1.
“We sat down and had a meeting and really tried to figure it out and regroup,” Crabb said, “and since then we’re 3-1, and the only loss was a one-goal game against a real strong team.”
That’s the bright side of what the Caps are going through right now. A three-game winning streak showed signs of life, but there’s also the caveat that it came against the lowly Florida Panthers and a Tampa Bay Lightning team in the midst of a six-game skid.
Sunday night at the New York Rangers, while hanging with a top team, the Caps again were unable to get a much-needed victory. Going into Tuesday night’s games, they’re 0-7-1 against teams in playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
“That’s not a good stat,” coach Adam Oates said. “You want to win every night. … And we got to find ways to play better.”
There’s a saving grace in the Caps’ 5-2-0 record against opponents out of the playoff picture because without those points they would be in an even deeper hole.
But sitting 15th in the East isn’t a spot they want to be in with two games coming up Thursday and Saturday against the defending conference-champion New Jersey Devils.
“We’ve beaten the teams we’re supposed to beat and we’ve struggled against the teams maybe we’re not supposed to beat,” defenseman Tom Poti said. “But you’re playing the best, and it’s a good measuring stick to see where our game is at and how we match up against those guys, and it’s a great test. We’ve got two games against those guys and we just need to get some wins.”
Some wins, any wins, are what the Caps need at this point, several players said. But it would help for a team considered a playoff contender to beat more than just opponents down on their luck.
Four of the next six games are against teams in the top four in the East: two against New Jersey, one against the Carolina Hurricanes and one against the Boston Bruins.
“We need to find ways to win against those teams,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “We’ve got to find that in our game. And we’ve got to try and find ways to get points against good hockey clubs because where we are isn’t good enough.”
The Caps are in the East cellar for several reasons. Oates pointed to penalties, while players said there’s an inability to put together a full 60-minute performance.
Because of those issues and more, players insisted it’s about wins by any means necessary.
“The league the last few years, it’s so close. Any given team can play like a top team on any night,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “We’re not worrying too much about where the opponents are in the standings. We’re worried about playing them as if they’re the best team in the league, no matter who they are.”
The Caps looked like a bona fide top team just once this season: in a 5-0 whooping of the Panthers at home Feb. 9. But in losing twice to the Toronto Maple Leafs, in overtime to the Devils and on a late power-play goal to the Rangers, confidence built up that they can hang with some good teams.
“It’s not to say that we haven’t had chances to win,” center Jay Beagle said. “I feel like our game has gotten better over the last four or five games. It feels like it’s coming and we’re playing good. We’re happy with how we’re playing, just with a few mistakes here and there. We tighten those up and we’re going to be a hard team to beat.”
Even given progress in executing Oates’ system, so far there’s little evidence that this is a hard team to beat. In sticking with the Rangers, the Caps got “outworked,” Brouwer said, and they needed a furious comeback to force overtime earlier in the season at the Devils.
But as Oates stresses the positives, a few guys said it’s hard to figure out what the 0-7-1 stat means for this group.
“I think right now it just says that we weren’t playing good at the start of the year,” Crabb said. “We’ve been doing a little better lately. We won three games in a row, but it just happened to be against teams that were in the bottom. I’m not worried about it.”
A victory or two against an elite team could do wonders, even as the mantra is just that the Caps need wins of any kind. That could be a vital step toward clawing into contention.
“You get more confidence,” Oates said. “You believe in yourself more.”