It’s hard to imagine, given a shortened season that’s run as hot and cold as springtime in Washington, that the Capitals would get complacent. Yet that’s what happened Saturday night against Tampa Bay.
Teams that have long clinched playoff berths, or have been eliminated, can afford to quit for a period, or the remainder of the regular season. The Caps fall into neither category. So Saturday night’s performance, in which they blew a four-goal lead before winning in overtime, has caused some hand-wringing among the Red crowd.
“We got a little complacent,” Troy Brouwer admitted Monday. “We let off the gas a little bit. . . . Going into the third period we didn’t think we needed to score any more goals, just play a solid defensive game and we kind of lapsed on that a little bit and needed one more. We’ve got to take a lesson out of it but at the same point we’ve got to be happy with the two points.”
They certainly needed the two points. The Caps hold a four-point lead in the Southeast Division over Winnipeg with six games to go. Their final opponents are Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Boston and Ottawa, twice. Four of those teams are among the top six in the Eastern Conference. Then there are the Jets, who would like to knock Washington out of the top spot in the Southeast. It may be the weakest division in hockey, but the winner gets an automatic berth in the playoffs nonetheless.
The Caps have fed off their division foes. Fourteen of their 23 victories came against Southeast teams; they won just 25 percent of their games against the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference. But starting Tuesday night against the Leafs at Verizon Center, they’ll face some playoff-caliber competition — with a playoff berth on the line. So how do you prepare for that?
“We need to not think about it,” Brouwer said. “. . . We do have to get confidence against them and try to get wins against them going into the playoffs. But even if we drop a game or two against teams that are ahead of us in the conference, we still have confidence in here, we still know we’re playing really good hockey, and we can beat anyone any night.”
Very true, although the Caps, at times this season, have also been able to lose to anyone, any night. Saturday nearly proved that. It’s hardly time for the wailing and the gnashing of the teeth, not yet, but with the Caps, one needs to keep a spare set of garments to rend, just in case. They had a bad start to the season — season over! They got a bit better — season saved! They looked dreadful in a losing skid — season over, and this time we mean it! Then Alex Ovechkin got hot and they went on their current tear of seven straight wins, and 11 of the past 13 — season saved! No, really!
One thing about the 2013 Caps — there has seldom been a dull moment. They are the Glenn-Close-in-the-bathtub of D.C. teams: Just when you think they’re dead, they’ll make you scream. Sometimes it’s fear; sometimes it’s something else. But you’ll scream.
The ice-half-frozen crowd will say the Caps are peaking at the right time. The ice-half-melted bunch will say that it’s easy to peak when you’re playing the Panthers. The final six games will tell us who’s right.
“It’s a goal for us,” said Braden Holtby, who knows a goal when he sees one, “to make sure you peak toward the end of the year, not only for us individually but as a team and we’re doing that.”
Another goal is not easing up in the final period.
“I think it’s a key lesson for us,” Eric Fehr said. “Obviously it didn’t end up costing us at the end but hopefully we can learn from it. You don’t want to give up in games and you’ve got to keep pushing teams. We let them back in. That was our own fault, and we got away with one.’
It’s not a mistake the Caps can make in the playoffs, Holtby said.
“We know if we play like that in the playoffs it’s not even going to be close.”
First, of course, the Caps have to qualify for the playoffs, against teams they may face if they get there. Another mistake or two such as Saturday’s and they’ll be out with the rest of us, amid the springtime in Washington.
For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/