PHILADELPHIA — After what seemed to be a routine blowout was suddenly a close game again, Coach Todd Reirden called a timeout to stop the bleeding. The Washington Capitals turned their attention behind the bench as Reirden leaned forward and told them, “We have to get back to playing how we were.”
He was referring to earlier in the game, but the Capitals have been steadily working toward getting back to playing how they were at the end of last season, when they won a Stanley Cup. The first two periods of Wednesday’s matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers were awfully close, and while it got dicey early in the third period, Washington still held on for a 5-3 victory.
The fifth straight win was a statement of sorts that the Capitals are surging again at just the right time, a month to go until the playoffs and back atop the Metropolitan Division.
“We’re playing with a different confidence lately,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “Everyone is aware of the situation, how we have to win a lot of games that’s left here. We’re in a good position right now, but it’s a tight race there with a lot of teams coming from behind.”
Of Washington’s past six opponents, just one was in playoff position, the New York Islanders — and they were playing a second game in as many nights. The Capitals have tougher times ahead on the schedule, including games at Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Carolina, making a win against a team such as the Flyers all the more important.
For the first time since Feb. 21 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, six games ago, the Capitals scored the game’s first goal. As captain Alex Ovechkin was on his knees and falling to the ice, he managed to pass to right wing Tom Wilson in front of the net, and Wilson scored his 19th goal just 5:55 into the game. Wilson is one point shy of matching his career-high 35, which he set last season in 78 games. He has played just 48 this season, suspended for 16 and injured for another three.
Washington’s second goal was so sneaky that it went unnoticed at first. Forward Brett Connolly collected a stretch pass from Carl Hagelin, and his shot from the right faceoff circle initially appeared to clang off the post. But at the next stoppage of play, a video review determined that Connolly’s shot deflected off goaltender Brian Elliott’s glove and then hit the camera in the top corner of the cage, meaning it was a goal, his 17th. The Capitals took that 2-0 lead into first intermission, at which point the home crowd first booed its Flyers.
“It didn’t really make a sound,” Connolly said of his goal. “It kind of went in weird. I thought it went in, and then [referee Kelly Sutherland] kind of waved it off right away, and he was in good position. Then I was like, maybe I didn’t [score]. . . . It was good to obviously get another one. It’s been a good stretch for our team lately.”
Washington continued to pour it on in the second frame. Ovechkin scored his league-leading 46th goal with a wide-open look on a power play from his left faceoff circle sweet spot 2:32 into the period, and less than two minutes later, winger Andre Burakovsky beat Elliott on a rush. Philadelphia then switched goaltenders, pulling Elliott for Cam Talbot. Backstrom scored on Talbot 84 seconds in, off a terrific feed from Jakub Vrana. Including Backstrom, the Capitals have seven players with at least 16 goals, a testament to their depth.
“That’s kind of our DNA and why we were successful last year — everybody was chipping in,” Connolly said. “It’s starting to get that feel. Guys are starting to get confident.”
But Washington made the mistake of assuming the game was over after that 5-0 lead. The Flyers responded with three unanswered goals to cut the deficit to two with 12:12 left in the third period. But Philadelphia got no closer. With 27 saves, goaltender Braden Holtby recorded the 250th win of his career.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Washington’s five-game winning streak started when trade-deadline acquisition Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen joined the lineup. Each tallied a point Wednesday, and their strength as skaters has helped the Capitals move the puck out of their own end more efficiently to spend more time in the offensive zone. It was that same kind of roster tweak, the addition of blue-liner Michal Kempny, that helped Washington hit its stride this time last season.
Though the Capitals have been a so-so defensive team all season, they have allowed just eight goals in the past four games, getting back to the suffocating style that won a championship nine months ago.
“We’re finding the way we played last year,” Burakovsky said. “The last couple of games here, I just think mentally we’re starting to get ready for the playoffs.”
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