It seems that whenever the Capitals have put out one fire this season, there’s another one that needs to be stamped out.
On Sunday, the Capitals proved they could jump out to a lead on a tired team when they scored three goals in the first 9 minutes against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were playing their first game after a three-game road trip to California.
But then the Leafs rallied back for a pair of goals, testing the Caps’ ability to play a strong defensive third period.
The Caps played hard enough and well enough in the final 20 minutes to pull out a 4-2 win and inch closer to a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
“I thought we got back to what we were doing in the first period,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said. “More five guys moving up the ice, getting pressure on them and making it difficult for them to get down the ice. They only had one chance off the rush in the third period.”
Combined with the New York Rangers’ 1-0 regulation loss to the San Jose Sharks, the Capitals moved within two points of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference standings, pending the Red Wings’ outcome against the Blackhawks.
The win sets the stage for a crucial three-game road trip to California that begins Tuesdya night in Anaheim and continues with games in Los Angeles on Thursday and San Jose on Saturday.
Fourteen NHL teams have played those three teams in succession this season and only four have come away with four points.
Capitals defenseman John Carlson was asked a realistic goal for the road trip and responded, “Win every game.”
Oates was just as adamant.
“You’ve got to win them all,” he said.
Clinging to a 3-2 lead after two periods, Oates made some significant line changes for the third period, moving Jay Beagle onto a top line with wingers Marcus Johansson and Alex Ovechkin, who were a combined minus-4 in the first two periods.
Nicklas Backstrom, who was also a minus-2, was dropped to a second line with wingers Evgeny Kuznetsov and Troy Brouwer.
“He’s kind of balancing the lines defensively to make sure that we are able to hold these leads,” Brouwer said.
If the Capitals can continue to play the kind of hockey they played in the first and third periods against the Maple Leafs, they’ll be in the thick of the playoff race when they return to D.C. next weekend.
“It’s huge,” Jason Chimera said when asked of the significance of the three-game trip.
Asked to elaborate, he said, “It’s very huge.”