WASHINGTON, D.C. — Over the course of a week, T.J. Oshie smiles as he admits that he has seen a new Washington Capitals team take form ahead of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Just days ago, Washington was coming out of a tough stretch that saw the team drop two big back-to-back losses and continue to be plagued by inconsistency and poor effort. And, in the playoff picture, the second Wild Card spot wasn’t as secure as it had been in the past, with the New York Islanders just 11 points back.
In turn, Oshie and the Capitals players headed behind closed doors for players-only meetings, openly admitting that they haven’t played their best hockey and needed to get things together with the postseason quickly approaching. Fast forward, and they’re a new-look group with four straight victories and improved play up and down the lineup and continuing to shake up the East playoff picture with big wins over top contenders, while also closing in on the Pittsburgh Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division.
“There’s so much more than just the end result with the effort guys are putting in now in all facets of the game,” Oshie said. “So we’re trending in the right way. And I think we’re learning what we need to do as players to have success on the ice.”
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Starting with the April 6 game against the two-time defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington has played a smart 200-foot game, getting off to quick starts and not stepping off the gas. The team has been aggressive on the forecheck and generated a lot of pressure in the offensive zone. On the backend, the defense clicked well and made the right plays in their own end, took care of the puck and sacrificed the body when necessary. The team has also been physical, and forwards have been putting in the right effort on the backcheck.
Not only that, but the goaltending has also gotten better, with Ilya Samsonov winning his last three starts and continuing to build confidence as he continues to battle for the No. 1 spot with Vitek Vanecek, who also proved strong in Sunday’s win over the Boston Bruins.
And, perhaps the biggest improvement for the Capitals has been their offense. Washington has been getting goals from its stars, but the team has also seen a much-needed boost in secondary scoring. The Anthony Mantha-Lars Eller-Tom Wilson line has been clicking well, with Eller stepping up in a big way with three goals and four points in his last two games. Meanwhile, Conor Sheary continues to impress on the top line, and the Johan Larsson-Nic Dowd-Garnet Hathaway trio is doing a solid job generating pressure at both ends of the ice.
Beyond the forward lines, the defense is moving the puck up ice and chipping in too. John Carlson has nine points in his last four games, and Martin Fehervary has three goals in his last four outings. Meanwhile, Justin Schultz, Trevor van Riemsdyk and even Matt Irwin have been able to chip in.
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In Washington’s last four games, the team has scored at least three goals in the first period twice. The Capitals have also scored at least four goals in each of their last four outings and also exploded for nine against the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I think we get a lot of our success from playing a complete game,” Oshie said. “They end up in goals, and you’re like, ‘Wow, they’re really scoring.’ But really, a lot of other areas on the ice are going well for us. We’re breaking out in the D-zone as a group of five. We’ve got a lot of guys since we talked [that] have been putting their body on the line blocking shots, keeping pucks out of our net, keeping second scoring chances from getting into the net. All that stuff translates and moves up the ice to our neutral-zone puck decisions, to our forecheck. And eventually, it ends up in a goal.”
Oshie says that the overall improvement, though, stems from a “new standard” of play that the team set for itself in its team meetings. The 34-year-old explained that if the Capitals want to make a deep run, the group will have to come together and start getting strong individual efforts. That has made all the difference over this recent stretch.
“It’s very important. More important right now for us than wins is how we play the game… it doesn’t matter what happens, who we’re playing. If guys make mistakes, guys know we have a new standard that we’ve set recently here that we have to live up to each night,” Oshie said.
The Capitals (41-22-10, 92 points) currently sit three points behind Pittsburgh for third in the Metro with two games in hand. There are nine games total left in the regular season.