“Within sight of the final playoff spot” may seem like damning with faint praise, but compared to where the Caps have been for much of the season, that’s an entire Hallelujah chorus for the Rock the Red crowd.
A four-game road swing got them back on track — that, and a spring in the step, er, skate of Alex Ovechkin, and the return of Mike Green and Brooks Laich to the ice and locker room, and a host of other things, including some inferior competition. No matter. The Caps need to beat inferior competition as well as the rest if they have any hopes of playing in May.
Sixteen games remain for the Caps. If they will be sweet remains to be seen. The Caps have 31 points and need approximately 19 more to earn a playoff spot. Nineteen points in 16 games, beginning Tuesday night.
On Monday, Ovechkin was named the NHL’s “First Star” for the past week, a league-created award that means very little. What means a lot is Ovechkin’s increased output. He scored five goals and eight points in that four-game swing. Losses — especially two at Winnipeg — would have all but ended the Caps’ playoff hopes.
He scored the Caps’ only goal in a 2-1 loss at Pittsburgh, a game the Caps say was probably their best of the season, despite coming away without a point. He scored three goals and had two assists in the Winnipeg doubleheader, and capped the trip with a goal and an assist Sunday against the Rangers, with a shootout goal as the cherry on top of Ovechkin’s Sunday.
“Right now I’m scoring goals and I’m the king of world,” Ovechkin said after Monday’s optional practice. “And a couple weeks ago I was almost in the toilet. So maybe you just forget to flush me.”
Ovechkin seems to perform better when he feels like the world is against him. That chip on his shoulder must make it hard to skate at times. But whatever works. And he’s not the only one who’s picked up the pace. Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and two assists against the Jets, and a goal and an assist against the Rangers. He also scored in the shootout.
Mike Ribeiro still leads the team in points (34) but now the top of the points leader board looks like it should, with Ovechkin (31) and Backstrom (29) narrowing the gaping maw that used to be between Ribeiro and all the rest. (At 33, Ribeiro might not have earned a five-year contract, but he certainly has earned some serious consideration, because without him early in the season, the Caps would already be on the golf course.)
It’s also no coincidence that the improvement the Caps have showncomes after the return of Laich for the Pittsburgh game and Green in Winnipeg.
“It obviously helps getting Greenie and Brooks back,” said goalie Braden Holtby. “I don’t know if it was coincidence but the mood changed in our locker room. . . . It seems like when you’re struggling guys are trying to keep it loose. In the last four games, I got into the room at the same time [as usual] and it was a quiet room. Guys were focused on what they needed to do.”
They’ll need that focus because after Tuesday night, they hit the road again for four games while the East Region finals of the NCAA basketball tournament take over Verizon Center. If they can again bring home six of eight points, they just might make the playoffs after all, something that seemed very unlikely before their little getaway.
These road trips do provide one scheduling quirk in the Caps’ favor: Their final three regular season games are at home, albeit against the Jets, Senators and Bruins, all teams ahead of the Caps in the Eastern Conference standings. Still, if they are still jockeying for playoff position, home ice can’t hurt.
Ovechkin asked Monday how many games remained on the schedule. Told there were 16, he said, “We have to try to win all of them.” They won’t, of course, but if they continue to play the way they played this past week, they can win a lot of them.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.