PITTSBURGH — When the Washington Capitals’ longest road trip of their 2014-15 season had ended, one full week after their plane departed from Dulles International Airport and crossed the country bound for California, forward Jay Beagle clutched two plastic bottles and shook them hard, trying to begin the recovery process as fast as possible. It had been an exhausting Tuesday night to conclude an exhausting four games, filled with fathers, fights and, most importantly to them, three wins.
“It was a huge momentum boost,” Beagle said. “Looking forward to getting home. It was a good road trip.”
The way the Capitals finished here, one more notch etched into their belts against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a feisty, nerve-fraying, 3-1 decision, offered their perfect dessert. They had already navigated the treacherous landscape of the West Coast tour, returning to Eastern Standard Time with two victories in three games, launched into Consol Energy Center with a happy end to their dad’s trip in Anaheim. Now, they pulled within one point of the Penguins and New York Rangers, albeit with games up on each, and five of the first-place Islanders.
Yet even inside the joyous visiting locker room, after forward Joel Ward’s power play game-winner late in the third period and another lockdown effort from goaltender Braden Holtby, the Capitals still considered their tour in the context of its lone blip, a 3-1 dissection last weekend at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings.
“Really good teams,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “That was something we talked about. We didn’t have a goal or a point total in mind. Obviously we weren’t very happy with the way we played in LA. That was probably the toughest one to make sure all 20 guys were going at the end of the road trip. You want to make sure everyone wills each other. I thought we had all 20 guys going well.”
This was Washington’s biggest worry with the sub-optimally scheduled game, dumped onto the back end of the California trip, with only one travel day in between. That Pittsburgh awaited on the back end was, in a way, fortunate; after the rejuvenation of seeing their fathers, and sweeping Anaheim with them watching, facing the Penguins was the best way to minimize a letdown.
From the jump, Coach Barry Trotz tried to establish a physical tone, starting forward Tom Wilson on the top line to ruffle feathers, which he did after the Capitals’ net dislodged from its moorings less than one minute after the puck dropped. From there, they navigated three Pittsburgh power plays, rode forward Alex Ovechkin’s league-leading 37th goal until Ward blasted the winner, handled the aggressive ramifications of Ovechkin’s no-call slashing on defenseman Kris Letang and, eventually, scraped together their fourth win in seven games over the top three Metropolitan Division teams – and third against the team directly before them, Pittsburgh.
“I think it shows what the team’s capable of doing,” Ward said. “It’s been a long journey, I think, coming off that bus yesterday, landing here in Pittsburgh, I think some of the guys were a little fatigued from the long flight. We showed who we are as a family, as a tight group. We stuck together. We knew we had to battle it out, especially a game against Pittsburgh, where we’re trying to chase and catch them. It was a big win for us.”
Now, with just five points separating them from the Islanders atop the division, by far the thinnest margin of any in the NHL, the Capitals return home with 24 games remaining, including 14 at Verizon Center. They host the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday, then close the month with four Metro games, including a weekend back-to-back of 12:30 p.m., matinees.
And reflecting upon this trip, they found it littered with defining moments. In San Jose, they scored their first non-shootout victory there since the early 1990s. In Anaheim, Ovechkin recorded his second four-point game of the season and overtook the NHL’s goals lead, center Nicklas Backstrom moved into first place for assists and rookie Andre Burakovsky, returning to the lineup after getting scratched in Los Angeles, recorded the first two-goal game of his career.
Finally, here in Pittsburgh, Trotz considered whether this trip had taught him anything new about the Capitals. He nodded. Yes, he said, it had.
“We’ve learned how to win games different ways, but we’ve learned to play, I think we’ve played very disciplined,” Trotz said. “We’ve been in situations like tonight where teams on the other side get ramped up, and we keep our composure. I think you have to keep your composure to have success in this league, and I thought our guys did a really good job. We have a big team and I like the fact that we can play a high-skill game, we can play a checking game or we can play a physical game. We’ve got some guys learning on the fly here and that’s great.”