Whenever the Capitals are asked to pinpoint the moment their season turned around, almost everyone refers to their back-to-back games in Winnipeg on March 21 and 22.
Before those games, the Caps were sitting in 14th place in the Eastern Conference with a 12-16-1 record, nine points behind the Southeast Division-leading Jets.
“We knew the magnitude of that week,” Capitals right wing Troy Brouwer recalled Monday. “I'm sure they did, too. But that was our season. At that point, we were quite a ways out of the playoffs and we needed to find a way back in and came up with a great effort.”
The Caps issued the Jets a pair of smackdowns – a 4-0 win followed by a 6-1 rout – kickstarting a stretch in which they have gone 13-2-1. During that same stretch the Jets have gone 7-5-1 and entered Monday night’s game against the Sabres three points behind the Capitals in the Southeast standings.
The Caps can clinch their fifth Southeast Division title in six years with a regulation win over the Jets. Anything less and the Jets will still have hope of a post-season berth.
“It’s huge,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who has closed to within four points of NHL scoring leader and MVP rival Sidney Crosby. “We understand it. I think everybody right now is focusing. Tomorrow is the biggest game.”
The fact the Capitals are in position to clinch a division title with three games remaining on their schedule is an indication of how far they have come since starting the season 2-8-1.
“It’s crazy for you guys, but we believed in what we had,” said center Mike Ribeiro, who is having his best offensive season since 2007-08 with 47 points in 45 games.
“It took time for us to adjust to what we were trying to learn and how to do it as a team. With a short season people were stressed out, saying we didn’t have enough time to get where we’re at right now. But we worked hard enough to put ourselves in that position.”
Essentially, the Jets will need to win their final three games if they hope to win the Southeast title. Following their games in Buffalo and Washington they’ll close out their regular season at home against Montreal on Thursday while the Caps are facing the Senators.
Caps coach Adam Oates seemed to be playing some head games on Monday when asked about the team nipping at the Caps’ heels.
“They should be a little tired,” Oates said. “It’s a stressful time. We should be in a better frame of mind than them tomorrow night.”
The Jets kept themselves in the playoff hunt by winning five games in a row before falling to the Islanders in a shootout on Saturday. Oates said they are a different team than the one that got hammered by the Caps last month and his players say they are taking nothing for granted heading into Tuesday night’s showdown.
“Those games are done,” Ribeiro said. “Tomorrow’s a new game, a new day. They’re going to show up knowing what we did there [on March 21 and 22]. It doesn’t matter anymore. That’s not how we should think.”
Defenseman Jack Hillen agreed.
“It’s their season, it’s our season,” he said. “It’s a playoff game tomorrow. I expect the building to be rocking, the fans to be rocking. It’s one of those games you love to play.”
Ovechkin was asked how much it means to him to see the Caps in a position to clinch after being so far back five weeks ago.
“To be honest with you, I don’t want to look back at what happened before,” he said. “I’m looking forward. Tomorrow is a huge game for us and I hope everybody is going to be ready.”
Perhaps the most interesting perspective on the Capitals’ final week of the season came from Hillen, who looks at the next three games as stepping stones, not a watershed.
“If we play well now and we don’t play well in the playoffs, who cares, right?” said Hillen, who has two games of NHL playoff experience. “We’ve got to keep playing well to reach our first goal so we can accomplish our second goal -- and that’s winning the whole thing.”