NEW YORK — When they embarked on this four-game, three-city road trip on March 18, the Washington Capitals completely understood the weighty opportunity it presented. Perform well and essentially save the season by keeping postseason hopes alive. Struggle and become further entrenched in the Eastern Conference basement.
Seven days after they left Washington, the Capitals return having captured six of eight possible points on a three-game winning streak and sitting just two points out of a playoff spot. When the trip began, the Capitals were seven back of the eighth and final postseason berth in the East.
“It was a big week for us. It’s not just that we got six out of eight points. We played better as a team,” Backstrom said. “I think that’s the effort you gotta do if you’re going to fight for a playoff spot. You’ve just got to keep going here, keep working for 60 minutes every game and hopefully you get success.”
The victory, which marked Washington’s first shootout of the season, pushed the Capitals to 31 points. They trail the Rangers, who advanced into eighth place in the East by gaining a point Sunday, by two and are five behind the Winnipeg Jets for the lead in the Southeast Division.
It might not have been a textbook triumph like the two previous ones against Winnipeg on this three-game streak, but for the Capitals, showing the ability to scratch out wins even after coughing up a two-goal lead in the first period to New York is a sign of their development. There was a time when Washington might not have handled well allowing the Rangers to come back and tie a game at 2 before the end of the first period.
Players have noticed a change in the team’s demeanor during this trip, though, one that is allowing Washington to find ways to succeed.
“We’ve always had a lot of confidence in ourselves. We played a lot of good hockey games but were never able to finish,” Troy Brouwer said. “We were never able to grind out those points and steal some points; we actually gave up quite a few in the process. Now that we’re able to sustain games, finish teams off when we have the opportunity, like we did in Winnipeg, and then find another way to win. We didn’t really want to give up a two-goal lead, but it’s still nice to be able to get the [victory].”
Washington took an initial 1-0 advantage 7 minutes 54 seconds into the contest on a fortuitous bounce. The puck deflected up into the air around the crease and went off Backstrom’s collarbone and past Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist (22 saves).
Less than two minutes later, Ovechkin recorded his sixth goal in the past five games for a 2-0 lead. As the Capitals set up in the offensive zone, Ovechkin was able to position himself in front with absolutely no New York player near him, making for an easy tip in when Steve Oleksy fired a shot from the point.
It was the third consecutive game that the Capitals jumped out to a two-goal lead in the first period, but this time the advantage wouldn’t reach the intermission.
Washington failed to maintain possession in the offensive zone and a poke check by Kris Newbury sprung Arron Asham on a two-on-one. Asham carried the puck the whole way, and in his first game back after missing 15 contests with a back injury, the fourth-line winger rifled a shot that beat Braden Holtby high glove side with 14:12 gone.
The Rangers received the opportunity they needed to even the score at 2 when Jason Chimera and Karl Alzner took interference and slashing penalties, respectively, 25 seconds apart. Seven seconds into the two-man advantage, a bad-angle shot by Derek Stepan low on the goal line trickled through Holtby’s pads.
The two teams played a tight, heavy-hitting game the rest of the way, exchanging chances but with neither team able to pull ahead. The most encouraging part, though, was that the Capitals didn’t sweat the close contest and stuck to their game plan.
“You can tell that’s confidence,” said Holtby, who stopped 30 shots in regulation and overtime and thwarted three of four attempts in the shootout. “That we can play in tight games and we don’t let up or start cheating or start trying too hard. It’s good to see.”
Washington had a few opportunities in the final minutes of regulation, a backhand chance by Brouwer required a stunning pad stop by Lundqvist, but ultimately couldn’t end the game without the tiebreaker session. The last team in the NHL to play in a shootout game this season, the Capitals found a way to ensure they would capture the all-important second point.
“It started in Winnipeg and now I think the standard’s set that nothing less than a win is acceptable,” Brooks Laich said. “You can feel it in here, we’re starting to find a groove, starting to find our game, growing with confidence and players are figuring out their roles on the team and we feel really good with our game right now. If we stick with it, stay healthy we’re going to be a dangerous team.”
Capitals note: Right wing Eric Fehr suffered what the team would only describe as an upper body injury in the third period of Sunday’s game. He didn’t return to the contest.