Back when the Capitals were 2-8-1 and staring up at 14 other teams in the Eastern Conference standings, they had to wonder if this day would ever come.
Back then, Capitals coach Adam Oates talked about his team “leaking oil” and having a “fragile” psyche.
Not anymore. With their 2-1 shootout win over the New York Islanders Thursday night at VerizonCenter the Caps overtook the backsliding Winnipeg Jets atop the Southeast Division.
The Caps are now 16-9-1 since starting the season 2-8-1. Their current 6-1-1 run has coincided with the dual collapses of the Jets [3-8-0] and Carolina Hurricanes [1-9-1], resulting in the Caps catapulting from 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings to third.
“It’s been a tough season, always looking up,” Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said after a spectacular 35-save performance, plus a perfect 3-for-3 in the shootout.
“We all knew where we should be, and that’s at the top. We just focused on what we had to do to be successful and if we did that we’d be where we wanted to be at the end of the year.”
To be clear, the Capitals still have 11 games to play before they can look back and pat themselves on the back for their remarkable turnaround.
But Thursday night’s game was another indication that the Capitals can adapt to almost any style of hockey played by their opponents.
The Isles outplayed the Caps for long stretches, especially in the second half of the third period when they had the Caps scurrying in their own end, ultimately leading to Kyle Okposo’s game-tying goal with just under 5 minutes remaining.
But Holtby kept battling, getting the game into the shootout before stopping Frans Nielen, Brad Boyes and John Tavares in succession. Alex Ovechkin beat Evgeni Nabokov for the Caps only goal in the shootout.
“Holts was a stud throughout the game,” Capitals left wing Brooks Laich said. “… He stole us that one.”
Mike Green provided the Caps’ only offense in the game, scoring on a slapper from the right circle with 13 seconds remaining in the opening period. It was his fifth goal in four games, his longest goal-scoring streak since early November, 2010.
“He’s got a nice little streak going,” Oates said. “I love the way he’s moving up on the play. He’s not trying to do too much with it; he’s not trying to gamble. He’s playing very well.”
And he’s not alone. The Caps have gotten scoring throughout their lineup; their captain is playing his best two-way hockey of the season; the defense pairings appear to be set; and Holtby has emerged as one of the best young goalies in the game.
“I think our team game has come a long way,” Laich said. “I really think that we're starting to grasp the system and the advantages we can get from it.
“I think we're starting to frustrate teams. They're not getting the chances and the goals that they were getting before. I really think we're supporting each other well. We're starting to suffocate teams a little bit more and getting healthy.
“Getting Mike [Green] back was big. And now we have the addition of Marty [Erat]. I said before I really think that the best hockey lays ahead for this team, and we're just starting to peak.”
Their timing could not be better.