During this lockout-shortened NHL season of 48 games crammed into 99 days, Washington Capitals forward Matt Hendricks can’t recall details from every night on the ice. Most of the campaign has been “a blur,” with one game merging into another, he said.
But Hendricks remembers Washington’s last trip to Winnipeg vividly.
“When you try to look back for a turning point, that might have been it,” he said Monday at the team’s Arlington practice facility. “We’ve been rolling since.”
The Capitals would clinch their fifth Southeast Division title in six years and lock up the No. 3 seed in next week’s NHL playoffs if they beat the second-place Jets in regulation or overtime on Tuesday night at Verizon Center. The Jets beat Buffalo, 2-1, on Monday night.
But arriving at the cusp of this feat has also served as another reminder of the triumphs that helped the Capitals to climb back atop the standings again.
When the Capitals traveled north of the border for back-to-back road games against the Jets on March 21, they were second-to-last in both the Southeast Division and Eastern Conference, and seven points out of a playoff spot. The Jets, meanwhile, were leading the division. Hendricks and goalie Braden Holtby both admitted Monday that many inside Washington’s dressing room were decidedly pessimistic about qualifying for the postseason at that time.
But Washington proceeded to rack up 10 goals and allow only one against in two decisive victories. Combined with a March 2 win, the Capitals outscored the Jets 13-1 at MTS Centre this season. Upon arriving home following another shootout win over the New York Rangers on March 25, Washington suddenly found itself in the thick of the postseason race, just two points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
“If we don’t win those games, we’re probably out of the playoffs a long time ago,” center Mike Ribeiro said before a reporter asked if the Capitals were confident about Tuesday given the lopsided scores against the Jets. “It doesn’t really matter anymore. That’s not how you’re supposed to think, or how you should think. We beat them [by] that much, but it’s a new game tomorrow. . . . We’re not in the same spot we were a month ago.”
Winnipeg’s season has featured its share of ups and downs. Soon after that two-game sweep by the Capitals, the Jets lost five games in a row. But they just had a five-game win streak snapped Saturday night by the New York Islanders, and currently sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
Led by speedy wingers Andrew Ladd (team-high 18 goals, 46 points), Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane, Winnipeg’s speed could prove troublesome, which was the case when the Jets defeated the Capitals, 4-2, in Washington’s home opener on Jan. 22. At that juncture, though, the Capitals had yet to find their bearings in Coach Adam Oates’s new system, and would soon find themselves with a 2-8-1 record to begin the year.
It forced Washington to embark on a steady climb out of the Eastern Conference cellar, one Ribeiro noted has made every game over the past month feel like the playoffs. He was also quick to point out that the Capitals still have two games after Tuesday, and that his teammates must keep in mind “it’s not the end of the world” if they fall short against Winnipeg.
But after a condensed season unlike few the NHL has ever seen, the stakes couldn’t be more clear now for Washington.
“Tomorrow it’s going to be in [the playoffs] or in for a huge battle for the last couple games,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “You don’t have to worry about somebody else helping you out or doing something for you. You have your own destiny.”