A month ago, when the Capitals were sitting near the bottom of the Southeast Division with an 11-15-1 record, there was growing doubt they’d be able to put together a stretch that would vault them into playoff contention.
“We would win one, lose one, win one, lose one,” Troy Brouwer said. “We wanted to start the season over again in our minds.”
And so a team meeting was called, presumably after a 4-1 loss in Boston on March 16.
“Everyone was in there and everyone got what they needed to get off their chests,” Brouwer said. “We had a start [2-8-1] we would have liked to forget and we wanted to move on. Since then, I don’t know what our record is, but it’s really good.”
It’s 12-2-1. Good enough to build a four-point lead atop the Southeast Division with six games to play.
The Caps followed that loss in Boston with a 4-3 home win against Buffalo, then embarked on a four-game road trip that would determine their season and whether they would be buyers or sellers at the trade April 3 deadline – at Pittsburgh, back-to-back games in Winnipeg and at the New York Rangers.
The trip began with a crushing 2-1 loss in Pittsburgh that head coach Adam Oates considers the turning point in the season. He still calls it the best game his team has played this season.
“After that Pittsburgh game, when [the coaching staff] talked in Winnipeg, we were concerned about a letdown,” Oates admitted. “We outchanced [the Penguins] 2-to-1 and it easily could have been 5-1 us.”
It was before that game in Winnipeg on March 21 that Caps goaltender Braden Holtby noticed a dramatic change in the demeanor of his teammates. Instead of dwelling on the loss in Pittsburgh, there was a renewed sense of commitment.
“Something changed in our locker room,” Holtby said. “It was bizarre. All of a sudden everyone started to focus in. I was looking around before the game and it was something I hadn’t seen all year. Everyone looked like they were not too amped up for the game, not too loose. They had the eyes you need to be focused and we’ve had that ever since.”
What was it that Holtby recognized most?
“I don’t know what it was,” he said. “Usually I get half dressed, I sit there and I listen to the room. Usually there were jokes and people talking about other stuff other than the game. That game it was very quiet and the only things I heard were what we were doing that night to make sure we won. It’s a credit to everyone in here that we were able turn it on like that.”
The Caps put a 4-0 thumping on the Jets that night and turned around the next night and drilled them 6-1. Alex Ovechkin gave the Caps an emotional shootout victory at MadisonSquareGarden two nights later and the confidence was oozing out of every pore.
The Capitals returned from their road trip and dropped a 3-2 decision to the Islanders on March 26 and have not lost in regulation since, going 8-0-1 and making them a team no one wants to face in the first round of the playoffs.
“I mean, look at how we played since then,” Holtby said of that March 21 game in Winnipeg. “Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. It’s never been to just make the playoffs, it’s longer than that. And we’re doing everything we can to build it and we’re confident we can.”
Eric Fehr, who played for the Caps when they were winning four straight Southeast titles from 2008-11, says he notices a swagger he has not seen since he left the Caps.
“We’re playing some of our best hockey and we kind of feel like the Capitals of old,” he said.
The work, however, is not done. After a two-break in the schedule the Caps begin their final stretch Tuesday night at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s hard to think we could do all this work for nothing if we don’t keep winning,” Fehr said. “We’ve got to keep pushing forward.”