Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson (74) leaps in the arms goalie Braden Holtby (70) after they won 2-1 against the New York Islanders after overtime and a shootout in an NHL hockey game on Thursday, April 4, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Thursday morning, Capitals forward Brooks Laich knew exactly where his team stood. Tenth place in the Eastern Conference, second place in the Southeast Division. Even then, Laich felt like the Capitals had the rest of the conference right where they wanted them.
"You can look at the standings, but the standings can be [deceiving]," he said, gaze as steely as ever. "Look at Winnipeg, they’ve lost four in a row, so if you look at the standings they might say that they’re confident, but in the locker room maybe they’re not.
"We feel very confident in here."
A bold statement from a team that just over one month ago was the worst in the conference and second-worst in the entire NHL. As recently as March 17, the Capitals trailed the Jets, Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning in the division race, nine points back of first place.
Yet as the Southeast crumbles around them -- Winnipeg has lost five straight and seven of nine, while Carolina has won just once since defeating Washington 4-0 on March 14 -- the Capitals, once in shambles after a disastrous 2-8-1 start, have rallied, and after Thursday's 2-1 shootout win over the New York Islanders, lead the division and hold a playoff spot for the first time this season.
"It's been a tough season in that aspect -- always looking up," said goaltender Braden Holtby, who was brilliant with 35 saves. "We all knew we're capable of [being] where we should be, and that's at the top. You know, this last little while we've all focused on what we need to do -- and that's be successful. And we knew if we do that, we'll be where we want to be at the end of the year."
It's no coincidence that Washington's resurgence coincides with its return to health.
Since March 21, when both Laich and defenseman Mike Green were in the lineup together for the first time this season after battling groin injuries, the Capitals are 6-1-1. Laich has helped to balance a lineup that was anything but without him for the first 28 games of the season, while Green has recently undergone a career renaissance, having scored five goals in his last four games.
“I think our team game has come a long way," said Laich, who left the game late as a precautionary measure after feeling sore. "I really think that we’re starting to grasp the system and the advantages we can get from it. I think we’re starting to frustrate teams. They’re not getting the chances and the goals that they were getting before.
"I really think we’re supporting each other well," he continued. "We’re starting to suffocate teams a little bit more and getting healthy. Getting Mike [Green] back was big. I really think that the best hockey lays ahead for this team, and we’re just starting to peak.”
Washington only has 11 games left in this truncated season, but there is still plenty of hockey left to be played. Five of those games are against the Southeast Division and only four points separate first from fourth.
But when you consider where the Capitals came from and where they are now, with all due respect to Laich's morning proclamation, that may be the boldest statement of them all.
“It finally feels like something has paid off for us,” forward Troy Brouwer said. "We're in a good position right now, but it's not over."
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