Capitals coach Adam Oates didn’t have to say a word.
His players knew what happened the last time they built a four-goal lead on an opponent.
If anyone was going to remind them what happened Saturday night against Tampa, when they blew a pair of four-goal leads en route to an overtime victory, it was themselves.
“Because it happened once we were going to make sure it didn’t happen again,” Caps right wing Troy Brouwer said after the Caps cruised to a 5-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night.
The win stretched the Caps’ win streak to eight games, their longest since winning nine in a row midway through the 2010-11 season.
The Caps also moved closer toward clinching their fifth Southeast Division title in five years. Although the Winnipeg Jets pulled out a shootout win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, they are running out of time in their attempt to close the four-point gap on the Caps.
“It’s always nice to get the two points and put pressure on different teams,” said Alex Ovechkin, who picked up a goal and an assist.
The Caps’ magic number is now seven points. Any combination of points gained by the Capitals or lost by the Jets totaling seven would give the Caps the division title. Both teams have five games to play, including a head-to-head meeting on April 23 in D.C..
“I’d say our confidence is as high as it’s been in a very long time, since I’ve been here,” said Brouwer, who arrived in a trade before last season. “Any time you can put eight wins together in a lot of different ways – a couple by shootouts, a couple decisive wins, a few where you've got to battle it out – we’re finding ways to win, we’re playing really good hockey and we know everybody’s coming to play every night.”
Maybe that’s why, when the Capitals carried a 4-0 lead into the second intermission, Oates kept his message positive.
“I didn’t even bring it up,” he said. “We were playing good hockey. We were up 4-0 and I told them to keep the foot on the gas and make it 5. You don’t want to plant the seed.”
The Leafs entered the game with a chance to clinch a playoff berth, but even though they narrowed the gap to 4-1 with Mikhail Grabovski’s goal 3:05 into the third period, the Caps restored their four-goal lead when Marcus Johansson scored on the power play to make it 5-1.
“We weren’t very good,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “We didn’t do a lot of things well. We circled all night. We didn’t play stop and go hockey and it looked like we had nothing in the tank, nothing to give.”
In addition to Brouer and Johansson, the Caps also received goals from Jack Hillen, Alex Ovechkin and Martin Erat to extend their current run to 12-1-1.
While Ovechkin’s offensive exploits have dominated headlines across North America – he now has 19 goals and nine assists in his last 18 games and is beginning to garner support of MVP honors – it was his willingness to defend teammate Nicklas Backstrom.
Ovechkin took a charging penalty for rushing to the defense of Backstrom, who was driven into the boards by Toronto center Jay McClement without a penalty.
“We’ll kill that penalty any day,” Holtby said. “It’s great to see Ovi doing that. That’s a leadership role he’s taking on. It wasn’t just a little tap. It had meaning behind it.”
It was another step in the team building process Oates began back in January.
Oates said the focus has been on getting better as a team, not individual statistics.
“We honestly haven’t talked about statistics,” Oates said. “Where we are [in the standings], how many [wins] in a row, or ‘Man, we’re playing good.’ One of the things we talk about is that I expect those guys to be pros.
“You can enjoy it tonight, sure. It was a good game. Tomorrow we focus on Ottawa.”