SAN JOSE — As he waited 15 days between starts, Braden Holtby began to notice changes in the Washington Capitals from his backup goaltender’s spot on the bench. When he made an unscheduled start in Saturday night’s 3-2 shootout win over the San Jose Sharks, Holtby was able to experience the difference first hand.
Gone were the endless waves of opponents flying into Washington’s zone. All five Capitals skaters consistently hustled back to fulfill their defensive assignments, preventing odd-man rushes and slowing teams through the neutral zone. Holtby saw every one of his teammates working within the same framework.
“It’s been great how we’ve played on this road trip and even the games before that,” Holtby said. “You see [Jay Beagle] playing with [Alex Ovechkin] five-on-five. Beags is a great, outstanding shutdown guy, and that’s what we need. He’s playing big minutes for us, which is huge, and everyone’s playing more as a team because we have a goal in mind. It’s a playoff race, it’s exciting and we’ve been playing really good hockey.”
The Capitals made their way back to Washington on Sunday following a tremendously successful week-long trip. They became just the second team out of 16 this season to earn five of out of six possible points from consecutive road games against the NHL’s three California-based squads, all of whom rank in the top eight in the league in points.
Washington grounded the high-flying Ducks, matched the exhausting intensity of the Kings and handled the Sharks’ combination of brawn and scoring prowess. Two of the games went to shootouts, and all of them were tight contests that demonstrated the Capitals’ newfound resoluteness.
Throughout the season, Washington has suffered from extreme momentum swings, unable to carry over strong play from one shift to another or avoid crumbling in the face of a surging opponent. But in the past five games, during which the Capitals have captured nine of 10 points, they have stayed on course regardless of the score.
They’ve also suddenly established a reliable penalty kill that has thwarted 19 straight power plays and 23 of the past 25 and found poise and cohesion at even strength. Shifts aren’t mauled by multiple careless turnovers because everyone is embracing making a smart play even if it won’t lead to individual glory.
“I think we’re doing a better job of keeping the puck,” veteran Jason Chimera said. “You see guys like [Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson and Ovechkin] dumping the puck in when they don’t have anything, and that’s important. We’ve got all the skill in the world, but that doesn’t mean anything if you give up turnovers and get scored against. Take a page out of the fourth line’s book, dump it in and go to work.”
While they’ve made progress, the Capitals know that it will mean little if they can’t sustain this strong performance through the final 10 games of the regular season. Washington is still on the outside of the playoff picture with 79 points. Washington is one point behind Toronto and Detroit in the Eastern Conference wild-card standings, though the Capitals trail both teams on tiebreakers.
Room for improvement remains, however, for the Capitals to earn their seventh consecutive playoff berth. The Capitals’ top two lines are still struggling to score at even strength. Ovechkin has gone 12 games without a five-on-five goal. Of the team’s 22 even-strength tallies since the Olympic break, only five were scored by players on the first or second line, and that includes two by Brooks Laich, who is out four to six weeks after undergoing groin surgery March 17.
The team still goes through extended lulls with little to no offensive traction. They have relied heavily on Holtby and Jaroslav Halak to hold steady in goal, such as when they were outshot 16-6 by San Jose in the second period Saturday night.
Washington will play five of its final 10 games on the road, but the Verizon Center schedule won’t be easy, either. Immediately after the trip, the Capitals host grueling Los Angeles and the Boston Bruins, who have won 12 straight. Six of their final games also feature teams no more than two points out of a playoff spot.
“We knew these were going to be some of the toughest games of the season coming out there with the way these guys were playing,” Eric Fehr said. “We did our job here, but we can’t let ourselves down at home now. Got to play well at home and continue to play a playoff-style game. I think we’ve had a lot less turnovers and played a greasier style of hockey that has worked for us.”