MONTREAL — The day after an outing Coach Adam Oates called “sloppy” with perhaps the worst execution he’d seen in weeks, the Washington Capitals got back to work.
With four games remaining in the NHL regular season and a slim hold on first place in the Southeast Division, the Capitals don’t have time to linger on what could have been against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night. They can only learn from it and let it serve as a late-season wakeup call.
“We need to bounce back right away,” said center Nicklas Backstrom, who was back on the ice Friday in Montreal after taking a slap shot off his right arm against Ottawa and is expected to play against the Canadiens here Saturday. “Obviously the points are so important right now. We can’t have any more games like [Thursday].
“We’ve got to make smarter plays, be careful with the puck and move it around better than we did last night. And we got to work a little harder as well.”
The Capitals took solace in the fact that, despite the poor play that snapped their winning streak at eight, they were still engaged in a one-goal game until Ottawa scored an empty-net goal with 87 seconds left.
“The fact that we were right in the game even though we were playing our worst game is a good sign,” winger Eric Fehr said.
In a briskly paced, 45-minute practice at Bell Centre on Friday, the Capitals focused on the details that were largely absent the previous night. Passes during two-on-one drills needed to be on the mark, shots needed to hit the net rather than sail wide and defensemen needed to make sure they positioned themselves and their sticks to best take away an opponent’s options.
While players insisted they weren’t worried about one off-kilter night becoming a larger trend, they knew they could benefit from freshening up the basics of their game.
“We’ve been pretty solid as far as crisp passes on the tape, taking care of the puck, not throwing it away,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “But just picking up our assignments all over the ice [Thursday] night, we were a little scrambly trying to get the puck back because of missed passes, missed cues and things like that. The timing was just a little bit off. It’s nothing to be overly worried about; we’ve been playing real good hockey for a long stretch of time now.”
Even though the team has won 12 of its past 15 games and climbed up the standings, Washington can ill afford another dud performance with just a two-point lead on the Winnipeg Jets for first place in the Southeast. Both teams have four games remaining, including a head-to-head matchup Tuesday at Verizon Center that could determine the division title.
The Jets, who have won five straight, host the New York Islanders and then visit Buffalo before traveling to Washington for the Southeast showdown, and then they close out the regular season at home against the Canadiens.
Meanwhile, the Capitals return home after Saturday’s game in Montreal to host Winnipeg, Ottawa and Boston in the final week of the season.
The Capitals want to make sure they don’t relinquish the top spot in the Southeast and that their hard work to claim that position, home-ice advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs and perhaps a more favorable matchup isn’t negated by a slide in the final days of the season. If the Eastern Conference were seeded one through eight rather than giving priority to division winners, the Capitals would be tied for seventh place with the New York Rangers.
The Capitals will need wins and points to keep Winnipeg at a distance, but it’s all in their control.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “We’ve been playing well lately, we’re going to continue to play that way through the last part of the season here. As long as we prepare the way we can and play the way we can, we’ll let the cards fall where they may and I believe we’ll be in a playoff spot if we do those things.”