WASHINGTON, D.C. — After a third straight win for the Washington Capitals, John Carlson and the team were in high spirits, smiling as they reflected on a recent hot streak that couldn’t come at a better time. But, going back to last week, that wasn’t the case.
Just days ago, the Capitals were sitting behind closed doors, holding “players-only meetings” after a string of inconsistency and lackluster play led to two volume-speaking losses and questions about their status as contenders with the postseason looming. Now, the Capitals have made a complete 180. They have captured three straight critical wins against tough opponents and are stringing together consistency that is shaking up the playoff picture in the East.
“I think we knew we weren’t happy with how we were playing and wanted to make a stand,” Carlson explained. “I think against three good teams, it’s a pretty good run for us, and it’s something to build on going forward now.”
Right now, the Capitals (40-22-10, 94 points) are in the second Wild Card spot. Before Wednesday’s game, Washington was somewhat skating on thin ice. The team sat just 11 points ahead of the New York Islanders for a playoff spot. Now, the Capitals have more security and widened the margin. Washington has also moved within four points of the Pittsburgh Penguins for third in the Metro Division.
Despite a strong 7-0-1 start to March, the Capitals struggled toward the end of the month. They saw a few big losses, a number of tough starts and more inconsistency that has plagued them over the course of the year. With the remaining regular-season schedule among the toughest in the league, they knew that things had to change.
“I think we know how good we’re capable of playing. But then doing it on a consistent basis has been the challenge for us since after Christmas, I think. Today, this week, we put together three really strong games with various challenges, some guys coming in and out. And I just think, really good team effort,” Lars Eller said, adding, “I think we got a good feeling in the room right now after this week.”
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Starting with Wednesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington has taken on a new mentality that has helped them turn their play around. That 4-3 victory over the two-time defending Cup champions fueled the Capitals and helped the team find some momentum ahead of a busy weekend set of back-to-back games against crucial East opponents in the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins. Knowing the stakes were high, the Capitals came in and put on a dominant performance. They secured respective 6-3 and 4-2 wins to move up in the Metro Division race and gain some ground.
“We don’t have any room to lay off the gas. We’re in a tight race. We know that if we played like we were down the stretch here, our season’s going to be really short,” Carlson said. “I think that was a big thing for us to feel confident in ourselves. We knew that it wasn’t going to be, ‘Oh, we’re not playing good and now it’s playoffs, let’s everybody give their best effort.'”
Not only did Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov continue to step up and add to their star-studded seasons, but the team has seen Connor McMichael step up and Eller found a spark while moving around on the bottom-6. Meanwhile, the secondary scoring improved with a few key absences on the forward lines. Marcus Johansson also finally got on the scoresheet, as did Johan Larsson. Tom Wilson also continued to add to his career year.
The defense has also been playing some of its best hockey, and the forwards are also stepping up on the backcheck. Players have been piling on the physicality and coming up big with shot blocks. The penalty kill has additionally come up big, killing off 19 of the last 20 opposing power-play opportunities.
In addition, the goaltending has seen improvement. Ilya Samsonov got back in for two starts with the starting spot still up for grabs. He made a strong case for himself and showed that he can be relied upon with two big performances. The 25-year-old shut down the high-powered Bolts back on Wednesday with some clutch stops and good movement. Then, after a shaky start against the Pens, Samsonov recovered for a perfect final two periods for his 50th NHL win.
Vitek Vanecek also played some notable hockey between the pipes. He returned for a stellar Sunday game, stopping 29 of 31 shots (.938 save percentage). Both had strong showings, and that’s exactly what the team needs with the No. 1 job still up for grabs.
“[The mentality] is the same,” Vanecek said. “Always trying to help the team in games. Just keep going.”
Carlson said the meetings played a major role in helping the Capitals find that mindset and come together. He also noticed stronger individual efforts and key names rising to the occasion.
“Flipping a switch isn’t an option for us,” Carlson added. “We’ve got to feel comfortable and confident in how we play over a long period of time to really build true confidence.”
“It’s just maybe good for the players to be able to be honest… Usually, you’re not in a good situation when you have to have those meetings. But I think we all know the gravity of the situation when we’re in that spot, and we feel like we need to do that,” Eller added.
Washington has 10 games left in the regular season. If the team can keep things going, the playoff landscape could see a complete shift. Now, it’s just a matter of keeping the consistency going as the Capitals prepare for the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday.
“I think we responded, clearly. I think we’re on a little bit better track now than we were a week ago. So a good step in the right direction.”