For more than two weeks, the Washington Capitals have been on the rise. Their results have been better, even if their climb up the Eastern Conference standings has been a slow process.
Their abysmal 2-8-1 start combined with exclusively intra-conference play made it hard to make up ground on those teams ahead of them. But finally, after 37 games and a 2-1 shootout win Thursday over the New York Islanders at Verizon Center, the Capitals are in playoff position, sitting atop the Southeast Division.
“It’s been a tough season in that aspect — always looking up. We all knew we’re capable of where we should be, and that’s at the top,” said goaltender Braden Holtby, who was stellar stopping 35 of 36 shots. “This last little while, we’ve all focused on what we need to do, and that’s be successful, and we knew if we do that, we’ll be where we want to be at the end of the year.
“Games like this are the ones that you win if you’re keeping your focus and you’re not worrying about those standings. We’re just worrying about how we played.”
As Washington defeated the Islanders for its sixth win in eight games, it received help from the Montreal Canadiens, who beat the Winnipeg Jets, 4-1. The Capitals and Winnipeg are tied in points (38), but by virtue of having played two fewer games Washington is the third seed in the East.
“Our team game has come a long way,” said Brooks Laich, who left the game with 9:26 remaining in the third period with an undisclosed injury. “I really think that we're starting to grasp the system and the advantages we can get from it.”
It’s been a tedious road to get to this point, with plenty of moments that raised concern as to whether Washington could fully grasp first-year Coach Adam Oates’s system.
But even as they struggled, the Capitals kept an eye on the division race and took note of the inconsistent play by Winnipeg, which has lost five in a row and seven of its past nine, and Carolina, which has flat-lined since defeating Washington back on March 12, going 1-9-1.
As their play steadily improved, the Capitals continued to believe they could make a push for the top spot in the division. A day after General Manager George McPhee expressed a clear message that Washington’s goal is to win now by adding veteran winger Martin Erat, who skated 14:43 in his Capitals debut against New York, the players saw their confidence rewarded.
“It finally feels like something has paid off for us,” said Troy Brouwer. “No one’s really broken away in the division. It kind of changed hands, Carolina had a great start, Winnipeg had a great middle and it seems as though we’re trending the right way going into the last  games of the season here.”
Thursday’s victory wasn’t perfect — giving up a one-goal lead with 4 minutes and 59 seconds remaining in regulation isn’t the way any team would draw up their game plan — but it showed Washington’s ability to overcome adversity.
Late in what had been a sleepy opening period, Mike Green gave the Capitals a lead when he snuck into the play after jumping off the bench. John Tavares tried to poke the puck away from Marcus Johansson but wound up delivering it to Green, who shot between Evgeni Nabokov’s legs for a 1-0 lead with 13 seconds remaining in the first.
For the next 35:01 it appeared as though that would be enough for Washington. But the Islanders, who have propelled themselves into the playoff race recently winning five of their past six heading into Thursday’s game, wouldn’t go quietly.
A failed clearing attempt by John Carlson gave New York possession in the offensive zone and some rapid, tic-tac-toe passing resulted in an easy shot for Kyle Okposo who made it 1-1 as Holtby tried to move left to right across the goal mouth.
With 2:52 left in the third, Green was erroneously whistled for delay of game after the puck went into the stands — it glanced off the top of the glass and shouldn’t have been a penalty. As the Islanders buzzed, no play was more critical than a dramatic pad stop Holtby made on Brad Boyes with just under two minutes to go to preserve the tie. Washington thwarted the penalty and would eventually win the contest on a shootout goal by Alex Ovechkin.
“Of course in the third period we make a couple mistakes give them kind of situation they can play in our zone more than we need. But Holtsy play unbelievable, make the biggest save, keep us in the game and big win,” Ovechkin said. “It’s good feelings we back in first place we have to stay there.”
While the Capitals’ sudden rise up the standings from 10th to third is certainly good news, the even-keeled Oates stressed that he doesn’t want the team to get too far ahead of itself. Not with back-to-back games coming up this weekend.
“You know, the guys will enjoy it for a little bit, but we’ve got a lot of hockey left,” Oates said. “It’s more important that we focus on the weekend because it obviously can drop just as fast. We’ve got to focus on our games.”