The catalyst for the Capitals' recent resurrection from the league's worst team in early February to its hottest team in early April depends on who you ask.
If you ask Troy Brouwer, he'll tell you it was a series of players-only meetings early in the season where players spoke freely about the team's struggles, collectively decided to forget their horrid 2-8-1 start and "restart" the season. Matt Hendricks, on the other hand, will pinpoint Alex Ovechkin's month-long hot streak as the reason for Washington's 11-3-1 stretch.
But Braden Holtby vividly remembers walking into the visiting locker room at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg before the first of back-to-back games March 21 and sensing a tangible difference in the Capitals' demeanor.
"Something changed in our locker room," he said Wednesday. "It was bizarre. It was just like all of a sudden, everyone decided to focus in. I was looking around before the game and it was something that I hadn’t seen all year. Everyone looked like they were not too amped up for the game but not too loose. It was just everyone having the eyes that you need to be focused with and we’ve had it ever since."
Entering those two games in Winnipeg, the Capitals trailed the Jets by nine points in the Southeast Division with 19 games left in the regular season. Washington was only two days removed from what Coach Adam Oates has repeatedly called one of his team's best games of the season -- a hard-fought 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh March 19 -- but it was a loss nonetheless and a moral victory did not count in the standings.
With their grip on any hope of securing a sixth consecutive playoff berth quickly loosening, the Capitals understood that the time for levity was over.
"Usually I get about half-dressed and I sit there and listen to the room and usually it’s jokes or people talking about stuff other than the game," Holtby said. "But that game it was very quiet and the only things you heard were what we were doing that night to make sure that we won. It’s a credit to everyone in here that we were able to turn it on like that."
Since that 4-0 win over the Jets, the Capitals are 9-1-1 and back on top of the Southeast Division.
All things considered, you would think that just making the playoffs after such a horrendous start would be enough for the Capitals, but as has been the case in Washington for several years, just being there is simply unacceptable.
"Our goal is still to win the Stanley Cup," Holtby said. "It’s never been to just make the playoffs. It’s longer than that and we’re doing everything we can to build it and we’re very confident that we can."
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