- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2013

The Washington Capitals returned home from Pittsburgh late Feb. 7 with a 2-8-1 record and five points, dead-last in the NHL. They woke up the next morning five points out of a playoff spot and seven back of first place in the Southeast Division.

More than a month later, the Caps are halfway through this lockout-shortened season and the despair is gone. An 8-3 stretch had players feeling upbeat, and even two losses over the weekend didn’t sap them of hope.

“We’ve put ourselves back into playoff contention,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “And with halfway left, if we continue to play the way we have been in the last 12 or 15 games or so, I think we’ll be in the playoff picture at the end.”

The problem for the Caps is that they haven’t gotten any closer to the playoffs. Now 12th in the Eastern Conference, they’re seven points out of playoff position and eight back of the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes.

Because of exclusively intraconference play, at least one team is getting two points every game, which makes it hard to catch up with just 24 games left. In order to do so, the Caps must be better than coach Adam Oates’ assessment of his team: “average.”

“I think we can do a lot better,” Oates said. “I think we’ve seen signs of what we could be if we do it right. And obviously we got to figure out ways to improve.”

Anchored by Braden Holtby, the goaltending has improved drastically in the past month or so. Holtby has started 12 of the past 13 games and put up a 2.29 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.

Penalties haven’t been as debilitating as they were in the first 11 games, but the problem cropped up again over the weekend against the Islanders and Rangers, leading to back-to-back losses.

“I don’t know if it’s frustration, if it’s because we’re out of position in areas,” forward Matt Hendricks said of the penalty dilemma. “I don’t know what it is, for sure, but it affects us every game.”

Not every game but enough that the Caps are chasing the Hurricanes and others. Having just 24 games to make up so much ground isn’t good, but the one advantage is a home-and-home series with Carolina this week, beginning Tuesday at Verizon Center.

“I think it’s going to be biggest game for us,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s kind of what we have to need to do. Beat the ‘Canes and get back on track.”

By the end of the week, the Caps could be four points out of first place in the Southeast or out of the race altogether. Two regulation losses to the Hurricanes would severely damage their chances to capture the third seed in the East, if not eliminate them.

But at this point, any seed would be a welcome reward for the Caps, who figure to have to reach 52 points to qualify for the playoffs. That means picking up 31 points in 24 games.

It’s a tall task but one players think is doable based on their first-half turnaround.

“Terrible start and we’ve been getting better ever since,” forward Eric Fehr said. “I think you can still see our game where we’re playing a lot better.”

After losing to both New York teams over the weekend, Ovechkin said the next step is to “refresh our mind, forget these losses.” But coming up empty in two straight games is something the Caps understand they can’t do if they want to make a run.

“We can’t squander the points that we need to catch Carolina,” Brouwer said. “They’ve been winning, they’ve been playing really good hockey as of late. It’s tough to catch those guys, we’ve got to make the best of it when we have opportunities.”

That’s the toughest part to come to grips with: Even though the Caps have won eight of their past 13 games, they haven’t made much of a move up the standings.

The conventional wisdom is that the Caps must earn four of every six points available. That’s not far off, as owner Ted Leonsis noted his team must likely finish above .500 to make the playoffs.

“We have a lot work to do,” Leonsis wrote on his blog.

Even more work than the Caps have done already, meaning the climb has just begun.

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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