Six Southeast Championship banners hang in the rafters at the Verizon Center. After a 1-5-1 start to the lockout-shortened season, focusing on adding a seventh divisional banner in the Phone Booth should be the Caps’ goal. Tuesday night’s win over the Hurricanes was a good start.
“It’s huge,” John Erskine said of the win. “Against any divisional opponent a win is big. We want to win that division, and this was a big step.”
Four points separate what is now the worst quintet of teams in the league, and after a dreadful start to the year, being the best of the worst could be the Caps best chance for a playoff bid.
While the locker room buzzed about how the team has finally found its stride, head coach Adam Oates put the win in perspective.
“It’s getting there,” Oates said of his team’s play, adding that they are “60, 70 percent” to where they should be. That’s true of basically every team before the mid-point of the season, however.
“I think the guys are realizing that the more they play as a unit and do the right things, the little things, there’s always going to be support for each other,” he said. “And you’re going to be in a way better position to make the next play.”
On a night when every team in the Southeast played, the Capitals fought for four points, playing with a sense of urgency Carolina couldn’t match from the opening draw.
It was a great night for the guys who just inked new contracts. Braden Holtby, starting his seventh straight game, made 33 saves to post his second shutout of the year, and Erskine’s goal 31 seconds into the second period completely sapped the life out of the Canes. Carolina was epically sloppy from that point on in the second period with only Cam Ward to thank for preventing a Washington blowout.
“In the second period, we had a little 10-minute wave there,” Oates said.
Holtby spoiled Alex Semin’s homecoming early in the game, robbing the former Caps’ forward on a shorthanded attempt. The Washington netminder also took a post-game jab at his former teammate, though it was much more subtle than Troy Brouwer’s assessment.
“A guy like that is never easy to play against, if he’s on his game,” Holtby said. “If he decides he wants to play, he could be the best player in the world.”
The Caps opened the scoring when Mike Ribeiro needled a shot through traffic from the right circle. The puck deflected off of Nicklas Backstrom and past Ward 7:21 into the first period. Erskine’s bullet from the high slot that beat Ward early in the second period completed deflated the Canes. The Caps proceeded to pepper Ward, who had a highlight reel glove save on Joel Ward.
John Carlson capped off the scoring with a rocket from the right circle that eluded Ward at 11:28 of the third period.
Tuesday night the Caps got great goaltending, production on the power play and balanced scoring. Though they still sit near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, Tuesday the Caps looked like a team that, if they can continue playing as they have while winning five out of their last seven games, could make the playoffs.
“Clearly it took a bit longer than any of us would like,” Carlson said of his team’s slow start. “But in the end, hopefully it works out for the better.”