As the Washington Capitals cruised to a three-goal lead over the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night en route to a harrowing 4-3 shootout win, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan looked pleased with his team’s play for one of the relatively few times since Christmas.
After a 5-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday, MacLellan’s gifted group was on the verge of winning consecutive games in regulation for the first time in nearly a month. Perhaps a troubling two-month span, in which the Caps went 11-12-1, was coming to an end.
Two years ago, the Caps were in essentially the same position they are in now with 19 games left in the season. Then, MacLellan traded for a key defenseman, the Caps’ veterans focused on committing to a rugged playoff style, and the team rolled into the postseason in excellent health and playing its best.
“Yes, it feels like the same sort of things are happening,” MacLellan said. “We’ve been struggling. You’re thinking, ‘This is not good.’ ”
Then it clicks.
“There’s no switch you can turn on just before the playoffs start,” the GM said.
If only professional sports were so neat and precise. Midway through the second period Tuesday, the Caps had dominated the Jets all over the ice. They looked like a team that had rediscovered its hard-to-balance but enormously dangerous identity. Here, three-quarters of the way through the season, was the Caps team that can blend gifted high-skill stars with a disciplined, fundamentally sound structure and a pounding, take-the-body mean streak.
Then it all fell apart.
“The first half of the game was closer to our style of play. But we let them back in at the end of the second period. Then we made a couple of mistakes,” Coach Todd Reirden said.
Suddenly the score was tied at 3 with the Jets on a power play and three minutes left in regulation.
A game the Metropolitan Division leader, tied for the third-highest point total (84) in the NHL, should have salted away with ease was on the verge of becoming a crushing loss.
Then what would that “tipping point” be tipping toward?
Seasons have many important junctures. This game, a fortunate escape, felt like one. The Caps fought off the buzzing Jets, got to overtime and, in a shootout, won on a nifty, slinky backhand by Alex Ovechkin. The ugliest of wins suddenly looked almost handsome.
On a night the Caps threw a doozy of a 700th-goal celebration for Ovechkin and his family, the Great Eight responded with the game’s first goal and its shootout clincher. Alex, was that one of your best shootout moves ever?
“Maybe,” Ovechkin said, acknowledging that shootout fakes have never been one of the best areas of his game. “Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to do.
“I’ll take it.”
So will the Caps, who know they have been skating on thin ice for many weeks. Their struggles have been obscured by Ovechkin’s chase for 700 goals, including a binge of 14 goals in seven games that bordered on unbelievable.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. We went through a rough patch,” Reirden said. “We’re not out of it by any means. . . . Going through that difficult time wasn’t fun for anyone. But that’s part of the process.”
If all this sounds familiar, it should. The similarities between now and the Stanley Cup season are too many and too obvious to miss.
In their championship season, the Caps played so badly at times that their coach was, twice, on the verge of being fired. Then from Dec. 22 through Feb. 22, they went 12-14, just in terms of wins and losses, just as, this season, from Dec. 23 through Feb. 22, they went 11-13, just counting wins and losses. In 2018, they didn’t truly wake up until their final 15 games (12-3), a burst that launched them toward a place in hockey history.
Goalie Braden Holtby, who lost his starting job (briefly) back then, is again being pressed by a young goalie with better statistics — this time 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov. Just as two years ago, the Caps have title-contending ability, but their goal differential (plus-29) and their Simple Rating System (0.51 goals per game better than league average, fifth best in the NHL) mean they aren’t favorites.
Again, they have a coach — then veteran Barry Trotz, now second-year coach Reirden — who has plenty to prove about how deeply he can lead a team into the playoffs. Again, the Caps are retooling important units entering the last six weeks — this time adding defenseman Dillon just as they got Michal Kempny for the final 22 games of the regular season and all 24 in the playoffs in 2018.
This year, MacLellan went further, adding the 36-year-old Kovalchuk, once an elite scorer, on the third line with center Lars Eller and gritty pest Carl Hagelin.
“In the playoffs you’re going to need more scoring from your third line. Kovi fits in well with Eller and Hagelin,” MacLellan said.
Like Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly meshing with Eller in much of the Cup run? “Similar,” the GM said.
How far can the Caps carry all these similarities? In particular, can the Caps care enough? Can they show enough energy on a consistent basis, and are they willing to face the physical punishment in blocked shots, battles in both creases and on the forecheck that defines them at their best?
The absence of exactly these traits — of toughness and buying in — exposes the Caps when they drift through long stretches, often falling behind early and chasing the game all night, even if they pull out ugly wins.
“The closer you get to the playoffs, the more exciting it is to play,” Holtby said. “There’s a ton of talent in here. . . . [As the playoffs approach,] we work on the harder things a little more. There were a few shot blocks tonight. . . . There’s still a lot of work to do. But we’re working again.”
One player matters more than Holtby. “This is a development year for [Samsonov]. We’ve tested him at times in certain road games against tough teams, and he’s responded really well,” MacLellan said. “But it’s not time for him to carry the load. We can’t do that to the kid. He’d be okay in relief [in midgame]. But in the playoffs, Braden has to be our guy.”
In the tough Metropolitan Division, with the hot Pittsburgh Penguins and rising Philadelphia Flyers trailing the Caps by just four and five points, respectively, the struggle for playoff positioning probably will go to the last week. Are the Caps ready to rise to the moment?
“This is a veteran group. There are a lot of players in there who’ve won a Cup. Hagelin has won two,” MacLellan said. “They can lead. Sometimes they need to be pushed a little. But they all know the time to be rounding into form is now.”
This type of arc worked wonderfully once for the Caps. It’s unwise to expect lightning to strike twice in the same place. But at least, if you listen hard, you can hear thunder.