Back on Feb. 8 when the Capitals were sinking under the weight of a 2-8-1 start, Adam Oates kept pumping air in the raft, telling his players that if they believed in his system they would rise to the surface.
Since then the Caps have won five of their last seven games and have outscored their opponents 26-14, including one of their most mistake-free performances of the season, a 3-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday night at Verizon Center.
“It’s getting there,” Oates said. “The guys are realizing the more they play as a unit and do the right things and support each other they’re in way better position to make the next play. It’s just not clockwork yet. It’s not automatic.”
Oates said he believes the Caps are playing his system at about “60 to 70 percent.” That may be news to Carolina defenseman Joe Corvo, who played briefly for the Capitals in the 2009-10 season.
“This is a tough place to play,” Corvo said. “They’re all over you the whole time. They don’t give you much time. They’re anticipating in our defensive zone where we are going to love the puck, they’re just all over the puck. We didn’t do a good job of getting clean outs.”
It is worth noting that of the 40 shots that reached Cam Ward Tuesday night, none came off the stick of Alex Ovechkin. It was the first time Ovechkin has been held without a shot since Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Rangers and the first time he’s been held without a shot in a regular season game since March 18, 2011 against the Devils.
“It goes to show that when you do things right,” Oates said, “everybody gets their chances.”
Ovechkin drew a penalty that led to Nicklas Backstrom’s power-play goal in the first period. It was the Caps’ 13th power play goal in their past 10 games, a stretch in which they are 13-for-30 [43.3 percent].
Backstrom also set up the Caps’ second goal of the game, dishing a cross-ice pass to defenseman John Erskine, who stepped into a heavy slapshot that bounced off the right pad of goaltender Cam Ward and into the net for his second goal of the season and first in 28 career games against Carolina.
“We know he can punch a guy,” Backstrom said of Erskine, “and he showed he can shoot it, too.”
With the Caps holding a 2-0 lead, Erskine also stepped in front of a Tim Wallace slapshot and drew a boarding on Wallace on the same shift.
Shortly after the power play ended John Carlson finished off the scoring when he swatted a Mathieu Perreault rebound past Ward for his third goal of the season.
Although the road ahead for the Caps remains a difficult one, the Caps are now within four points of the Lightning and Hurricanes in the Southeast standings. Carlson said it has everything to do with keeping the faith in Oates and his system.
“From Day One, everyone stuck to it,” Carlson said. “When we were losing games and playing bad, guys didn’t come in the room and question anything. We stayed as a team and we did the right things.
“Clearly, it took a little bit longer than any of us would like, but in the end, hopefully, it works out for the better.”