The Washington Capitals’ win against the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins turned a typically low-pulse early January night into an evening flooded in revelry. Alex Ovechkin reached 1,000 career points. Nicklas Backstrom was honored for hitting 500 career assists on the road. Capitals coach Barry Trotz reluctantly waved to the crowd when he was recognized for moving into eighth place all-time in NHL games coached.
Skipped Wednesday night amid the video montages and standing ovations, was acknowledgement that the midpoint of the season just whizzed by. A look at the calendar, standings and momentum show things in the District, and Metropolitan Division, are beginning to look a lot like last year.
When Trotz walked into his postgame press conference, fans who stuck around until almost midnight cheered him from the other side of the glass wall that separates the small room from a bar area. He went to his standard joke when hearing the cheers, “Still got it.”
It appears the same can be said for his team. Washington has won seven consecutive games to move to within a point of the lead in the powerful Metropolitan Division. No team has a longer current win streak. No team has been better in the past 10 games.
“I would say details,” Nicklas Backstrom said as a reason for the recent run. “We’ve been talking a lot about details, being in the right position and play smart and puck management. I feel like when we do that, we usually have good games.”
The seven-game win streak has not been populated by patsies. Washington ended Columbus’ 16-game winning streak with a 5-0 thumping in Verizon Center. The run began against meek New Jersey, but includes wins against Ottawa and Toronto, which are fighting for a back-end playoff spot; at Montreal, which leads the Atlantic; and Wednesday’s win against the rival Penguins.
Dial back to last season. The Capitals were roaring toward the Presidents’ Trophy with a 31-7-3 record after 41 games. They had won 12 of their last 14 games at midseason. Ovechkin had just hit 499 goals,in his 800th game, one short of a milestone. The Capitals had 65 points.
This recent run has pushed Washington back into a similar circumstance. Its 59 points are the second-most in franchise history after 41 games, trailing only last season’s total. The Capitals are 14-2-2 in their last 18 games, putting them just one point short of the league’s top record. Ovechkin just hit another milestone. The division is filled with fellow contenders.
“There’s a lot of good teams,” Trotz said. “Columbus, Pittsburgh, the Rangers. Just basically go through the whole Metro division. It’s a great division. It’s great for hockey. We’re going to go through our business and see what happens after 82. Hopefully, we’re in the playoffs, go from there.”
As much as the schedule can be a burden, Trotz thinks it has helped of late. The seven wins in a row came in just 12 days. The value of depth — something Pittsburgh showed with glaring efficiency last season — has also been exemplified during the stretch.
“I think two things: We’re pretty good with rhythm,” Trotz said. “And, I think the way we’re built, we spread the minutes out. When I first got here, I was playing [Backstrom] and [Ovechkin] 22 minutes a night. That wears on you. And, to play at the pace the Penguins play, you can’t play one line, two lines. You need your whole roster to share that workload. I think we’ve gone more to that and that’s where you talk about leadership — you talk about Ovi, I’ve reduced his minutes so we can play faster. He’ll be fresher at the end. We’ll be fresher. I think over the 82 games compressed schedule, it’s going to pay dividends for us.”
Pittsburgh left Wednesday’s game believing the score was misleading. Matt Cullen hit the crossbar in the third period. Forty seconds later, the Capitals went up 4-2 on Justin Williams’ goal. It was a pull-the-rug exchange.
“I wouldn’t consider this game [Wednesday] lopsided,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “It was a 4-2 hockey game and from our estimation, it was a lot closer than that. It’s two good teams that played hard. They got some momentum on their power play; we got some momentum on our power play; Cully hits the crossbar, they come back and score. There’s a fine line between winning and losing in this league. We didn’t get it done [Wednesday]. We believe in this group. We know we have a good team. We know we can compete with anybody in this league.”
There was no horn tooting by the Capitals following the win against Pittsburgh. The rise in the standings and reflections of last season’s power prompted an opposite reaction. They would rather no one notice.
“We’re just trying to play our game quietly so don’t write anything about it,” Backstrom said.