With Final Stretch Underway, Capitals Ready To Buckle Down: ‘It’s Go TIme’
The Washington Capitals know that the final stretch will be a tough one, and they’re ready to play with urgency and push hard for the playoffs.
After winning the player of the game rope following a critical 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals goaltender Darcy Kuemper stood in front of his teammates with a strong message.
"Boys, [if] we play like that, we might not win every night, but we'll give ourselves a chance every night," he said.
Saturday's victory was arguably the biggest of the year as Kuemper and the Capitals maintained a lead through 60 minutes and outlasted the high-flying Bruins with a strong effort down the lineup.
"Coming off a long break like that, I think we had to find our footing and find out the game that we can play be consistent and I think the first 20 minutes we played great. I think we played better than them," Garnet Hathaway, who scored the game-winning goal in the second, said. "And then in order to kinda outlast them we had to find our game in the second. I think we had some confidence for how well we played in the first and you’re just kind of falling back on that and obviously, we leaned on Kuemps a lot. I think he’s a big reason we stayed in it, and I think we’re focusing on our defense a lot, and it all starts with Kuemps.”
Washington hadn't played since Jan. 31, making the playoff situation even more complex. Going into Saturday, the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders were both in prime position after returning earlier this week. Pittsburgh moved temporarily into the first Wild Card spot with 51 points, and the New York Islanders had tied Washington for the second Wild Card spot with 60 points.
"Looking at the standings, we were on a break and we saw other teams below us keep winning, so we gotta jump on that train, too," Backstrom said. "It’s tight there. You need every point you can get."
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Despite being underdogs against No. 1 Boston, who had lost just one game in regulation at home all season, the Capitals remained well aware of the situation they are currently in and how tight the standings are, and knew that anything less than 100 percent in the top team in the league wouldn't be good enough.
"It's definitely 'go time' for us," Kuemper You could see that urgency in our play. It would’ve been disappointing to come into this building and not put in the effort we did but we all [know] the position we’re in, and we played unbelievable. It’s probably the hardest building to win in this year so that’s big for us.”
Coming out of the break, there was some rust to shake off for Washington. Still, the Capitals got off to a quick start thanks to a Backstrom power-play goal in the first, and Hathaway's strike set the tone and gave the Capitals a two-goal cushion. So, when the Bruins started to tilt the ice in the second, Washington had insurance, and of course, Kuemper was there to keep his team in it. He came up with some huge stops and ended up with 27 saves on 28 shots.
For the 32-year-old, the win was a team effort and one that can set the tone for the team going forward.
“We wanted to come out sharp out of the break and set the tone for the rest of the way here," Kuemper said. "It’s going to be a race all the way to the finish line with how tight the playoff standings are so you know this is how we’re gonna have to play but it was nice to see us do it right out of the gate.
“I think we just gotta use it as the blueprint of how we wanna play regardless of if we’re on the road or at home," he added.
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Kuemper also said that Hathaway, along with linemates Lars Eller and Anthony Mantha, was a major factor in the victory.
"He’s always out there giving 100 percent and working his bag off for his teammates, so it was nice to really see him be rewarded with that goal," Kuemper said. "But you know he was still doing all the little things that he always does.”
For Backstrom, starting off with a big win can not only serve as a positive sign but a reminder of how the team needs to maintain that standard on a nightly basis with other teams elevating their play as they make their own playoff pushes.
"I really think this is the time when teams are starting to get together and really playing good hockey and more like a playoff-style hockey," Backstrom explained. "It’s gonna be tight at the end but hopefully, this is going to give us a little boost moving forward."
Washington now has back-to-back wins dating back to that Jan. 31 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, but the Capitals aren't spending too much time in the past, especially after a lackluster January. They play again in less than 24 hours as they host the San Jose Sharks at home in another critical game, and the plan remains the same: stick to the system, stay consistent for 60 minutes and play for each other.
"We need a better month than we had before, and that starts tonight," Hathaway said.