Capitals forward Tom Wilson flew down the ice Friday and crossed over his defender to add an insurance goal with under two minutes left. Earlier in the period, defenseman Matt Niskanen was on the backside of the net and knocked in the go-ahead score.
In the following days, the Columbus Blue Jackets retook the division lead, currently in first-place with 39 points to Washington’s 37. But that doesn’t change the fact the Capitals have found a groove since a 6-2 loss on Nov. 16 in Colorado.
The Capitals have won eight of their last 10 and went 4-1 on a crucial five-game home-stand.
“We’re skating now,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “It starts with everybody skating. We’re understanding that we can still be a possession team, but we don’t always have to try to make 18 plays to keep possession. … When our execution is good, we’ve got a lot of speed on the puck.”
The Capitals saw that Saturday. Washington’s top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Wilson put another dominant performance. But Trotz noted all four lines “are starting to stabilize,” pointing out that he was able to play a consistent rotation — one of the team’s strengths over the last two years.
Trotz’s recent lineup change has made a difference in the Capitals‘ surge, too. On Nov. 22, Trotz reunited Backstrom with Ovechkin, a pairing that has been a staple of the Capitals‘ regular season success in years’ past. Last year’s effective third-line of Brett Connolly, Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky has also been brought back. And Jay Beagle, Washington’s fourth-line center, has found chemistry with wingers Devante-Smith Pelly and Chandler Stephenson.
Wilson said people are starting to see “the work ethic” from all four groups.
“The past five, six games, you’ve seen that work ethic, you’ve seen the speed, you’ve seen the determination and that identity of kind of every line chipping in,” Wilson said. “Earlier on in the year there was maybe one or two lines that were kind of going on any given night and one wouldn’t be, and we weren’t putting together a team game.”
After the loss to Colorado, the Capitals were 10-9-1 and Niskanen said he and his teammates “got our butts chewed a little bit, rightfully so.”
At the time, Washington was strugglong to string consistent performances together. Two good wins against Pittsburgh and Edmonton were followed by one-sided road losses in Nashville and Colorado.
Niskanen, though, had confidence the group would turn it around.
“Hockey’s a lot more fun when you’re playing well, playing hard for each other like we are right now,” Niskanen said.
The Capitals, for the first time since the beginning of the season, are almost healthy. T.J. Oshie remains day-to-day with an upper-body injury, but skated Sunday for the first time since his injury last Monday against the San Jose Sharks.
The Metropolitan Division is still tight. Along with the Blue Jackets and the Capitals, four other teams — the Rangers, the Devils, the Penguins and the Islanders — are still very much in the race. The top three teams in each division make the playoffs, along with two wild card teams.
The Capitals face another divisional opponent Monday with taking on the New York Islanders in Brooklyn.
“We’ve got like 50 games left and we’re separated by about three points between six teams, so I’m not getting too excited about where we are,” Trotz said. “This whole Metro division is a monster. We’re going to have to deal with it all year.”
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