OTTAWA — The sounds that echoed through the Canadian Tire Centre hallways Friday were the mark of a relaxed Washington Capitals team gripping destiny by the collar. The drumbeat of a soccer ball booted around near the Zamboni door. The clatter of feet shuffling through off-ice workouts. The cackling laughter after someone tossed a medicine ball high into the air, fumbled the catch and dropped it onto a pile of wooden planks.
With a regulation victory Saturday night against the Ottawa Senators, the Capitals would erase their magic number and clinch a playoff berth, three games before the regular season closes. They have won seven of nine dating to mid-March, many in wildly different ways, staving off the charging wild-card contenders and, with Thursday night’s shootout win in Montreal, leaping into second place in the Metropolitan Division.
“Everything’s in our own hands,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I’m a big believer that if you work for stuff, you earn it, and if we can earn it on our own, I think that’s the way we want to go. I don’t think you want to rely on someone else doing your work. We’d like to get a win tomorrow. That would be a nice thing. I think the guys set out to do something at the start of the year as a group. Hopefully we can get there.”
When Trotz and the Capitals gathered for their first training camp together, they set their sights on the Metropolitan Division title, a lofty goal given their struggles of 2013-14. The New York Rangers formally ended that quest Thursday, claiming the title with a win in Minnesota, but home-ice advantage in the first round remains in play for Washington. In recent interviews, Capitals players have increasingly made reference to bringing the opening series to Verizon Center. Simply reaching the postseason no longer seems good enough.
They stand knotted with the New York Islanders in points (96), games played (78) and wins excluding shootouts (38) but hold the tiebreaker for second place thanks to a head-to-head points advantage (6-5). The Pittsburgh Penguins also sit one point behind both, with a game in hand and one of the Eastern Conference’s easiest closing schedules. To lock down home ice, Washington would not only need to hold off both clubs but also navigate a four-game thunderstorm, beginning with this weekend’s back-to-back against Ottawa and Detroit.
“That’s something we’ve been trying to work towards almost the whole season. Just haven’t quite got there,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “To be this deep in the season and still be in that race, and finally see ourselves in that position, it’s a testament to our persistence. But it’s not exactly a safe place to be. We still have work to do.”
Save a demoralizing shootout loss to Winnipeg and a one-goal loss to Nashville, the Capitals have held up their end, winning in radically diverse ways. On March 15, Holtby became the first goaltender since 2006-07 to blank Boston twice in the same season. On March 16 and March 26, Washington clawed out wins beyond regulation against Buffalo and New Jersey, teams long since ousted from postseason contention.
The Capitals have ridden forward Alex Ovechkin, the leading goal scorer in the NHL and for the franchise, and received multi-goal outings from secondary options such as Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera and Joel Ward. The team’s power play slogged through an 0-for-11 stretch, then hung three goals on the Canadiens in a loopy shootout victory that featured six on-the-rush strikes and only 48 total shots on net.
“You just got to get into the playoffs and anything can happen,” forward Eric Fehr said. “I feel like our team is playing a playoff-style game where I’m hoping other teams will be scared to play us. We have a big team, but a big team that has skill. If we can put everything together and we can play like a big team and let our skill take over second, I think that’ll be tough to defend come playoff time.”
Several weeks ago, Trotz glanced at the standings and predicted a far tighter race than what showed at the time. He saw Boston, Ottawa and Florida lurking in the weeds, and cautioned the Capitals that at least one team would catch fire. This came true, but Washington kept its distance.
Now, nine points ahead of the Panthers and six up on the Senators, a fourth straight victory would cross off the primary objective of reaching the playoffs. So, Friday afternoon, the players mixed jokes with work. They held meetings, lifted weights and left the rink, a team dinner scheduled later that night. They left Canadian Tire Centre understanding the opportunity ahead. After all, it was what they wanted.
“There’s a lot for us to play for,” Trotz said. “I’d like our guys to get it done on our own, not rely on someone else.”