Even with the Capitals on a five-game winning streak and having triumphed in nine of their last 11 games, Coach Adam Oates routinely points to a game they lost as the team’s best overall performance of the season – March 19 in Pittsburgh.
It was the start of the longest road trip in the season, and at that point the Penguins were atop the league standings in the midst of a lengthy winning streak. By all accounts, the Capitals played well. They limited Pittsburgh’s offensive firepower and had plenty of their own scoring chances but ultimately, a failure to convert on a four-minute power play and a turnover resulted in a gut-wrenching, 2-1 loss.
“For us as a coaching staff, that was an important game for us because it turned out to be a little bit of a launch for us in terms of playing well,” Oates said. “We thought we played a great game there. Once the guys are in Winnipeg, they had forgotten Pittsburgh, but so many good things came out of that game.”
For as disappointing a result it was for the players, Oates and the rest of the coaching staff emphasized the positives: the strong decision making, the ability to generate scoring chances and play a well-executed game against one of the elite teams in the East.
“They showed us, they were able to back up what they said and showed us why we should have won that game in Pittsburgh, why we had opportunity to win that game in Pittsburgh,” Matt Hendricks recalled. “We didn’t win but they showed us that we could feel good about ourselves and about our play. We were really starting to turn the corner in our system, how we want to play and everybody was playing good hockey then.”
It was a loss, but it might have been the loss that helped the Capitals turn their season around. When they arrived in Winnipeg for critical back-to-back games against the Jets, Oates was worried about the team possibly suffering a letdown given how emotional a loss it was in Pittsburgh.
Instead, the Capitals responded with the desperation necessary to preserve their playoff hopes, and in the dressing room there was a change in tone.
“It was bizarre. It was just like all of a sudden everyone decided to focus in. I was looking around before the game and it was something that I hadn’t seen all year,” said goaltender Braden Holtby, who criticized the Capitals’ focus heading into the Pittsburgh game. “Everyone looked like they were not too amped up for the game but not too loose; it was just everyone having the eyes that you need to be focused with, and we’ve had it ever since.”
The Capitals didn’t just beat Winnipeg twice, but thoroughly demolished the then-Southeast leaders to give put themselves on the road to first place in the division.
In the 11 games since the loss to the Penguins back in mid-March, Washington is 9-1-1, having gone from 14th in the Eastern Conference with 25 points to third with 44.
“I think we saw a little more fire in guys’ eyes,” John Carlson said. “It was right in front of us and that’s what guys needed to see to really step their game up to the next level and since then guys have been doing things the right way.”