The Washington Capitals dug themselves a considerable hole starting the season with just two wins in their first 11 games. It took the majority of their schedule to erase that disastrous start, but by virtue of a 2-1 shootout win over the New York Islanders the Caps have come all the way back to tie for first place in the Southeast Division. The Winnipeg Jets lost 4-1 to the Montreal Canadiens to find themselves with an equal number of points — and the Caps have two games in hand.
In reality, the team that beat the Islanders Thursday night is a much different squad than the one that scrambled to keep their heads above water once the league came back from the lockout back in January.
Braden Holtby, playing with all the confidence in the world, has unquestionably secured the No. 1 goaltender position. Mike Green, with five goals in as many games, is playing like the two-time Norris Trophy candidate he once was. A rejuvenated Alex Ovechkin has finally picked up his scoring pace and has elevated himself onto the league’s goal scoring leaderboard. Brooks Laich has returned from his debilitating leg injury to provide quality minutes in the offensive and defensive end.
And Wednesday, GM George McPhee added another piece to the puzzle, bringing in winger Martin Erat to provide offensive help up front.
In fact, the team that has gone 16-9-1 their last 26 games bears little resemblance to the one that started out a dismal 2-8-1.
The differences were evident against the Islanders. Holtby was the best player on the ice, taking a shutout until late in the third period when the Islanders finally broke through with 4:59 left in regulation. Ovechkin, though he didn’t score in regulation, was all over the ice like he used to be, plus was the only shooter to succeed in the shootout portion of the game. Green scored the Caps only regulation goal, pinching in from his point position to bury a shot past Islanders goalie Evgeny Nabokov from the right wing dot in the first period.
Asked how long his squad could relish in the achievement of ascending to the top of the division, head coach Adam Oates replied, “The guys will enjoy it for a little bit, but we’ve got a lot of hockey left. I think it’s more important that we focus on the weekend, because it obviously could drop just as fast. We’ve got to focus on our games.”
Eleven games, to be precise. That’s all that stand between the Capitals now and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. What seemed so unlikely back in January after the disastrous start is now in the Caps hands. They control their own destiny having erased the deficit they authored through their poor play. They’ll travel to Florida Saturday night to face the Florida Panthers, then return home Sunday to host the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After this season, the Caps won’t have the cellar-dwellers of the Southeast Division to push around anymore. But until this season is finally exhausted, they must continue to feast on the lesser talented foes of the southern wasteland of the NHL. The Caps must take advantage anywhere they can, and that starts again Saturday in Sunrise.