If there were seeds of doubt in the Capitals’ locker room when they were 2-8-1, Adam Oates did everything he could to dig them up and toss them out the window.
On Tuesday night, Oates and the Capitals completed a remarkable turnaround, beating the Winnipeg Jets 5-3 in front of an electric crowd of 18,506 at Verizon Center to win their fifth Southeast Division title in six years.
“We had a lousy start,” Oates said in the afterglow of the Caps’ playoff-clinching victory. “I don’t think many of us thought we’d come this far. But we put some good hockey together, the guys have grown, it’s a good feeling right now, and tomorrow we go back to work.”
Since that inauspicious start to the season, which left the Caps dead last in the NHL, Oates has led his team on a 24-10-1 adventure that included the re-making of Alex Ovechkin.
With a goal and an assist, Ovechkin now has 22 goals and 11 assists in his last 21 games, almost single-handedly carrying his team to a division title that seemed impossible five weeks ago, when the Caps were nine points behind the division-leading Jets.
“We believed in ourselves,” said center Nicklas Backstrom, one of five players to score goals for the Capitals in the win. “We talked a lot in the locker room, we trusted ourselves, worked hard every day, started winning games and we just kept rolling.”
Ovechkin said Oates is the biggest reason for the Capitals turning around a season that two months ago looked like it might end with the team in the NHL draft lottery.
“It’s huge credit,” Ovechkin said. “He try his best. It’s always fun to work with a guy like him. He wants to be involved in everything. He always talks to guys and has a good sense of humor.
“He never gives up. If we lose a game he always tries to find the positive. He never screams at us. It’s good when you have that kind of person behind you. You just want to win for him and play for him. He knows how to treat the guys.”
The Capitals are division champions because they went 15-3-0 against the four other teams in the Southeast, including 4-1-0 against the Jets, outscoring them 18-4 in their final four meetings, all victories.
The Jets were all but eliminated with the loss. They remain one point out of the eighth spot in the East, but have just one game remaining while the eighth-place Rangers have two.
“This was basically our Game 7 of the playoffs,” said Nik Antropov, who drew the Jets within 4-3 with 8:10 remaining in the game. “It’s frustrating to lose that way.”
The Caps rolled out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Matt Hendricks and Jason Chimera, but the Jets answered with second-period goals by Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler. That’s when the Caps showed their character. Nicklas Backstrom and Mathieu Perreault scored less than 3 minutes apart late in the third to give the Caps a 4-2 lead.
Antropov’s goal turned up the heat in the building, but the Caps killed off a penalty to Perreault and Ovechkin nailed a slapshot for an empty-netter to seal the win and send the fans screaming onto F Street.
“You could tell driving to the game,” Chimera said of the atmosphere. “You see all the people put at the Green Turtle drinking beers. It’s always fun to come to the rink and feel that playoff atmosphere.”
With the start of the playoffs still a week away, the Capitals can spend the next few days preparing for their final two games without losing the pedal-to-the-metal edge they’ve shown for the past two months.
“The guys were fantastic about it,” Oates said when asked how far his team has come. “Nobody complained. Nobody pointed fingers. They kept their heads down and gradually turned it around.”
And in the process, Backstrom said they’ve become a closer team.
“We have a great group of guys,” he said. “This is probably the best we’ve ever stuck together and worked together. If you want to win you have to stick together and work for each other.”