Capitals appear to be hitting stride, but is it too late to land them in the playoffs?


Washington Capitals right wing Alex Ovechkin, left, battles for the puck during Thursday’s game against the Los Angeles Kings. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)
March 21

When the Washington Capitals hit the ice Friday a little more than 12 hours after a grueling game that ended in a shootout loss, you would have never known that they came a skills competition short of capturing two points from one of the toughest defensive teams in the NHL.

There were jokes as they zoomed around for drills, and they spent the final 20 minutes playing lighthearted, up-tempo rounds of shinny that brought overzealous celebrations and chirps in the dressing room.

This wasn’t a team buckling under the weight of a postseason push, but rather one encouraged by its recent play.

Heading into Saturday’s matchup against the formidable Sharks, whom the Capitals haven’t defeated in San Jose since Oct. 30, 1993, the Capitals have won three of four and captured seven of eight points. As they wrap up a three-game trip through California, the Capitals have found ways to preserve leads, fight back from a deficit and eliminate many of the mood swings that have plagued their game.

With the New York Rangers’ 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday, the Capitals trail Columbus by one point in the race for the final playoff spot.

“Everyone feels better about their game. At this point in the season you should feel your best. We’re seeing a little bit of that confidence and we’re also managing the games a lot better,” John Carlson said. “We’re finally seeing some results and having close games against good teams. We’ve found a bunch of different ways to win in the last little while and it’s been positive.”

During their three-game winning streak, which ended with Thursday’s 2-1 shootout loss in Los Angeles, the Capitals never trailed. They jumped out to early leads and when teams, whether Vancouver, Toronto or Anaheim, pushed back, the Capitals handled it — which has not always been the case this season.

Part of that, players say, is simply growing tired of coughing up leads. They’ve choked away 12 two-goal leads, many resulting in gut-wrenching losses.

“We’ve had a lot of experience in blowing leads. We’re finally figuring out how not to do it and what works and what doesn’t and how responsible we need to be with that puck,” Troy Brouwer said. “I know we’ve got a lot of offensive-minded players on our team that want to continue to push the pace and score goals. You don’t have to sit back, but sometimes you don’t have to take those chances. The last few games we haven’t been taking chances and the result is we’ve been holding those leads and getting points.”

That balance was evident against the Kings when Washington fell behind and needed to work its way back to steal a point.

While the Capitals were aggressively working the cycle to generate scoring chances, they didn’t put themselves at risk to yield strong scoring chances in the process.

Certainly, Washington has relied a great deal on goaltender Jaroslav Halak during this stretch as they’ve been outshot 143-106 the past four games (121-85 at even strength) and he’s brought a sense of calm to the defensive zone. But the Capitals are finally seeing more of the consistent, smart decisions with the puck that they’ve long sought to establish in their own zone and transition game.

Karl Alzner cited a greater involvement from the forwards in the defensive zone and a willingness from everyone on the ice to make an effective play that can alleviate pressure in their end, even if it won’t lead to an odd-man rush up ice.

“We’re just playing more responsible,” Alzner said. “Guys are doing a great job of recognizing when there’s nothing, throwing the puck in deep and trying to go back and get it. We’ve also been doing a way better job of getting it out of our zone cleanly. When defensemen have been pinching on us, we’ve been throwing it off the glass and centers are in great spots, wingers are battling hard.”

For all the positivity, though, whether the newfound stability and poise from the Capitals arrived with enough of the season left to propel them into the playoffs for a seventh straight season remains to be seen.

Capitals note: Washington signed 2010 fifth-round draft pick Caleb Herbert to a two-year, entry-level contract beginning next season. Herbert, who played for Minnesota-Duluth the past three seasons, will report to AHL Hershey for the remainder of the season on a tryout agreement.

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