Reporting David Elfin
When the Caps played well but lost 2-1 in Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins a week ago tonight, the obituary on Washington’s season seemed appropriate.
At 12-16-1, the Caps were much close to the bottom of the conference than a playoff spot with just 19 games left. They were about to play back-to-back nights in Winnipeg against the Southeast Division-leading Jets before a Sunday evening date against the Rangers in New York’s Madison Square and Garden where their surprising playoff run ended in heartache in Game 7 of the Eastern semifinals last May.
But lo and behold, when the guys in red, white and blue take the ice tonight at Verizon Center against the New York Islanders with two thirds of the lockout-shortened season complete, they’ll be tied with the visitors for 10th place, just two points behind the Rangers for the conference’s eighth and final postseason berth. That’s because Washington won 3-2 in the Garden on Nicklas Backstrom’s shootout goal after thumping the Jets 4-0 and 6-1.
After Winnipeg’s victory on Sunday night at Tampa Bay, Washington (15-16-1) is still five points behind the Jets – with the Carolina Hurricanes remaining between them – but the playoffs are again a very real possibility for rookie coach Adam Oates and Co.
The next 13 days present a terrific opportunity for the Caps to show they belong with the Penguins, Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins as Eastern contenders and not with the Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers and the Lightning as teams already thinking about next season.
Over the coming 13 nights, Washington plays seven games, six against teams it leads or is tied with in the playoff chase: the Islanders (twice), Buffalo Sabres, Flyers, Panthers, Lightning. The Hurricanes, who lead the Caps by a point with two games in hand, are the other opponent during that span.
After winning three straight at Winnipeg and the Rangers, it’s reasonable for Washington to aim to gain 10 of a possible 14 points in the seven games between now and April 8.
If the Caps accomplish that, they should be holding onto a playoff spot heading into their rigorous final nine games, only one of which is against a team – the Lightning — currently trailing them in the standings. But that’s a column for another day.
What went right for the Caps on their 3-1 road trip starts with their defense – led by goalie Braden Holtby, who’s 7-3 with a 1.88 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage this month — which held the potent Penguins as well as the Jets and Rangers to just five goals in 245 minutes.
In contrast, Washington’s offense scored 14 goals, five by captain Alex Ovechkin, who was named the NHL’s “First Star” of the week. As he continued to make the transition from left wing — his position during his previous seven seasons — to right wing, Ovechkin scored in each of the four games, totaling five goals and three assists.
Backstrom opened the scoring at the Garden on a power-play feed from Ovechkin at 7:45 of the first period and helped set up Ovechkin’s goal that made it 2-0 less than two minutes later. Backstrom had two goals and three assists against the Rangers and Jets after he put just three pucks in the opposing net during the 28 games before the trip.
“It was a big week for us,” Backstrom said. “It’s not just that we got six of eight points. We played better as a team. That’s what you have to do if you’re going to fight for a playoff spot.”
It can’t be a coincidence that Ovechkin and Backstrom really got going once forward Brooks Laich returned to the lineup in Pittsburgh after missing the first 28 games of the season with a groin injury. Defenseman Mike Green also got back back on the ice in Winnipeg after being sidelined for 10 games (extending his absences to 93 of 193 regular season games) with his own groin injury .
Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green, along with sniper Alexander Semin, who signed with Carolina last summer, were Washington’s “Young Guns” of the second half of the past decade. Laich was the glue guy who really kept things together in the dressing room.
Despite all their talent and always owning home ice advantage, those Caps teams lost four of six playoff series from 2008-11 and never advanced to the conference finals. Splitting seven-game series without the home ice edge against the then-defending champion Bruins and the Rangers last spring seemed like serious progress. But then came a second coaching change in less than seven months with Dale Hunter’s resignation, the four-month lockout, and a 2-8-1 start to this season.
Washington is 13-8 since. That’s a .619 winning percentage. Maintaining that pace over the remaining third of the season would probably translate into 20 points and a sixth straight playoff berth.
“We’re starting to find a groove and starting to find our game and growing with confidence,” Laich said. “Players are figuring out their roles. We feel really good right now and if we stick with it and stay healthy, we’re going to be a very dangerous team.”
As the Caps have shown by losing to the eighth-seeded Canadiens in 2010 and upsetting the Bruins as a seventh seed in 2012, anything’s possible come playoff time. After all, the reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings were the last team to qualify out West last April. Who knows how far the Caps could go if they make it?
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin