WINNIPEG, Manitoba — For weeks there had been glimpses of what the Washington Capitals were working toward. A strong shift here, a clean period there served as evidence that the team was making progress despite its entrenchment at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
But it wasn’t until back-to-back games here, with their postseason hopes in trouble, that the Capitals finally showed what they are capable of and earned the results to go with it.
The Capitals were unrelenting in victories over the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday and Friday, outscoring their foes by a total of 10-1 and leaving little doubt that they were serious about making a push for the postseason.
“I think the attitude around our group right now is improving every day,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “You can tell before games, we’re not as loose as we were before, joking around. You can tell guys are taking it very serious and making sure we’re prepared. It’s a good thing to see.
“The last two games here you could tell. It was kind of do or die for us where we really realized it,” Holtby continued. “We understood how far out we would be if we lost both of them and how close we could be if we won them. I think that’s what changed.”
Washington attacked in waves, grinding away at the defensive mettle and overall will of its opponent. It prevented any occupation of its own zone, limiting Winnipeg to largely harmless perimeter shots.
“We’ve been playing well, but consistency is a thing that we had a hard time doing,” Capitals center Mike Ribeiro said. “After those two games we can see how we should play and how to play. We have an idea of how to play and the times that we won are when 20 guys show up and everyone was doing the job.”
It’s no coincidence that Washington’s improved play coincides with the return of forward Brooks Laich and defenseman Mike Green to the lineup after both missed time with nagging groin injuries. Their returns coincided with blue-liner Jack Hillen coming back after a left shoulder injury and top defensive prospect Dmitry Orlov, who missed three months with a concussion, being ready for game action as well.
While defensemen John Erskine (left hand/wrist), Tom Poti (back) and Tomas Kundratek (right leg/knee) remain on injured reserve, the lineup the Capitals used in the wins at MTS Centre was by far its most complete of the season.
Laich, who made his season debut Tuesday in Pittsburgh, helps bring balance to the forward lines. His presence as a left wing on either of the top two lines ends a season-long rotation in those spots and allows Washington’s bottom-six forwards to focus on playing within their designated roles.
“Guys have stepped in and played roles that maybe they weren’t accustomed to and done a good job at it,” Laich said. “We just want to make a seamless transition, come in and be part of the team and help us win. We’ve been hampered by injuries throughout the year, as every team has. I think we’re now starting to get healthy, knock on wood, and it couldn’t come at a better time.”
Green adds a different dimension to the defense with his superior puck-moving skills and skating ability, making breakouts cleaner and offering an additional offensive threat.
For Coach Adam Oates, having both back brings him much closer to being able to implement the strategies he designed before the season began.
“You want all your players and obviously your top players so you can execute the plan that you put in place,” Oates said. “Having Brooksie back has been huge. He really fits in to what I think our system is in terms of going north and being relentless and skating and putting pressure on their team and bringing the guys forward. . . . [Green] is a top defenseman in this league. He was playing 27 minutes a game. We need him and he’s back, and obviously that really matters to us.”
The more full roster allows Oates to reinforce the roles of each individual player and in certain circumstances manage minutes. In the wins over the Jets, Oates took advantage, rolling four lines consistently and balancing the workload of the defensemen.
The test for Washington (14-16-1, 29 points) is to build on its success against the Jets. Heading into Sunday’s game against the New York Rangers (15-13-2, 32 points), the Capitals are three points out of the eighth and final playoff spot and five behind the Jets for the Southeast Division lead.
“Now that [most of] the team’s healthy, you can see how complete of a game we’ve played over the last two games,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “We have to be excited, we have to be enthusiastic about our two wins here. They’re very timely, very important to us but at the same time, we can’t think it’s going to be easy from now on.”
Capitals notes: Right wing Joey Crabb cleared waivers Saturday and was assigned to the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, Washington will carry a salary cap hit of $50,000 from Crabb’s one-year, $950,000 contract even though he is playing in the AHL.