To John Carlson, “flipping a switch” isn’t an option for the Washington Capitals. With the playoffs fast approaching, the defenseman said he and his teammates couldn’t go about assuming they would automatically find their footing when the postseason starts next month. Not when they were just outscored a combined 11-2 a week ago in consecutive losses to the Carolina Hurricanes and Minnesota Wild.
They were kind of defeats that prompted players-only meetings, the kinds that only happen when a team finds itself in disarray.
But for all the dialogue, the message was well-received. Sunday’s 4-2 win over the Boston Bruins marked Washington’s third straight against a top Eastern Conference foe. In the span of a week, Washington has beaten Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Boston — inching closer up the standings, in the process.
If the playoffs started today, the Capitals (40-22-10, 90 points) would still be the Eastern Conference’s last wild card team. But thanks to their recent surge, Washington is now in range of possibly passing Boston (95 points) or Pittsburgh (94 points) with a full 10 games left.
The scenario suddenly seems more realistic than it did last week.
“We don’t have any room to lay off the gas,” Carlson said. “We’re in a tight race. … It was a big thing for us to feel confident in ourselves.”
The Capitals aren’t in danger of missing the playoffs — they’ve built a comfortable cushion in front of the teams behind them (the Islanders and Blue Jackets). Still, Washington would likely benefit from being able to jump a spot or two in the playoffs. The No. 1-seeded Florida Panthers have scored the most goals in the NHL this season by a large margin (27 more than the next), and they would currently be the Capitals’ opponent if the postseason started today.
Even if the Capitals were to move up to the second wild-card spot, they would be slotted to face the winner of the Metropolitan Divison. That, of course, is the Capitals’ division, and Washington may be better suited for a best-of-seven series against a team it knows well. The Hurricanes are currently leading the Metro, just ahead of the New York Rangers.
Washington could also avoid the wild card entirely if it passes Pittsburgh. Because of the NHL’s playoff format, the second and third best teams of each division face off in the first round.
Regardless of playoff jockeying, Washington’s players-only meetings served a bigger purpose. Before Washington’s recent three-game streak, T.J. Oshie said the players talked about rediscovering their identity and how they have to play in order to be successful. “We’re not playing our brand of hockey,” he said last week.
That’s changed in a big way since his comments. Sunday’s game against Boston was particularly indicative of the Capitals’ shift in play —with a season-high 25 blocked shots. Capitals coach Peter Laviolette noted the team’s commitment to defense, including on the penalty kill in which Washington killed off four Boston power plays.
As a whole, Washington’s penalty kill is suddenly becoming a strength. That trend even extended before the Capitals’ letdown against the Hurricanes and Wild as Washington is now 19-of-20 on the kill over the last seven games.
“That’s what it’s like at the end of the year as you’re going in the playoffs,” Laviolette said. “For me, that has to be the commitment. Defense is the priority. If you’re good defensively, I think we feel like we can score some goals.”
The Capitals also have seen their star players contribute in a myriad of ways: Carlson has eight points (three goals, five assists) over the last three, Alex Ovechkin has scored in three straight and Tom Wilson has scored in four of the last six.
Center Lars Eller, who scored Sunday’s game-winning goal, credited the meetings for helping the turnaround.
“It’s just maybe good for the players to be able to be honest and hold each other accountable sometimes instead of just the coaching staff doing that,” Eller said. “So we can be honest between each other, just the players, without having any of the coaches in the room is sometimes helpful. … we all know the gravity of the situation when we’re in that spot and we feel like we need to do that.
“I think we responded, clearly. I think we’re on a little bit better track now than we were a week ago.”