During the Washington Capitals’ recent four-game skid, there was no single common denominator to the losses. In some matchups, they were outshot. In others, draw controls went the opponent’s way.
But even as coach Peter Laviolette glanced at the scoreboard to see Washington on the short end of a quartet of losses, there were signs he found encouraging — the physicality or the offensive zone time.
“There’s things that I’m liking, and the score’s not,” Laviolette said. “The score’s not cooperating.”
That is, until Tuesday night, when the Capitals shrugged off their losing streak to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins for the first time in four meetings this season. In a condensed 56-game schedule and competing in the stacked East Division, Washington’s start-and-stop performances leave the team in the middle of the standings.
But if there’s a time to make a push, the quarter-way mark in the season is as good as any. One win — the Capitals’ first this month — doesn’t heal all. It could be a turning point, though.
“I think that is our most complete game of the year,” winger T.J. Oshie said. “Something to be happy about and build on and move forward here.”
When Washington lost Sunday against Pittsburgh, winger Jakub Vrana said there seemed to be at least one period a game in which the team fell asleep. That drop in edge proved costly twice in the four-game losing streak; the Capitals blew a three-goal lead to the Bruins on Feb. 1 and a two-goal advantage to the Flyers on Feb. 7.
A new head coach, a shortened training camp and a lack of exhibition games meant the team would face a learning curve heading into the season, but the Capitals didn’t suffer a regulation loss for the first nine contests.
Then the losing came, upending what had been a blistering start. But to Laviolette, the level of play produced in the losses often showed improvement when compared to early season wins.
“We’re trending in the right direction,” winger Tom Wilson said before Tuesday’s win. “But that being said, right now it’s not good enough. You need to get the win.”
The positives visible in the losses came together as one in Tuesday’s victory, with a season-high 42 shots. Washington finished level with Pittsburgh in faceoff wins and kept the puck for lengthy periods in the offensive zone.
Goaltender Vitek Vanecek rebounded from a difficult stretch, too, stopping 26 of the 27 shots he faced while holding a shutout for over 55 minutes.
The victory also allowed the Capitals to leapfrog the Penguins in the standings, holding the fourth seed in the East Division — the final playoff spot.
There are still three quarters of the season to play, but the games on the horizon are an opportunity to cement that position, starting with Thursday’s contest against the Buffalo Sabres
The Capitals’ next three opponents — the Sabres, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils — control the three lowest spots in the division standings. The Devils and Sabres have recently returned from coronavirus-related layoffs, and the Rangers are on a four-game losing streak of their own.
So while one win doesn’t mean Washington’s season is back on track, the opportunity is there to continue a push up the standings — even if Laviolette preaches process over product.
“It’s something to build off, it’s just a step in the right direction,” Laviolette said. “We’ve got tough games coming up, but I think at this point what you’re trying to do is just build that on the ice, that identity, and not focus so much on results.”