ARLINGTON, Va. -- Ask members of the once-struggling Washington Capitals when their season turned around, and there are a myriad of answers.
One theory is that a players only meeting after a 2-8-1 start helped steer the team in the right direction (the Capitals are 19-9-1 since).
Others point to the Capitals’ two-game sweep against the Winnipeg Jets, March 21-22, in which they outscored their opponent 10-1 at MTS Centre and gained four points on the then-Southeast Division-leaders.
There is also the thought that a comeback win against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 14 not only saved Washington’s season but also put a serious dent in Carolina’s once promising campaign.
Consider that the Hurricanes entered that game having won six of seven (including a 4-0 shutout of the Capitals two nights earlier) and were 10 points clear of Washington for first place in the Southeast Division. Exactly four weeks later, the teams meet Thursday at Verizon Center, this time with the Capitals 10 points ahead of the Hurricanes.
"It's definitely surprising," Capitals forward Eric Fehr said of the 20-point swing between the teams in less than a month.
Carolina has lost a season-high six straight and 13 of 14 overall and has been without No. 1 goalie Cam Ward since March 3 because of a torn medial collateral ligament. Both of the team's top two defensemen, Justin Faulk and Joni Pitkanen, have missed significant action with injuries.
"They’re a skilled team, but obviously injuries play a big part of it, and in this shortened season a lot of teams are struggling with injuries," Fehr said. "It’s a downward spiral, and it’s hard to control when you play so many games in so few nights. They’re a really good team, we still know that, but it’s been a tough stretch for them."
The Hurricanes built an early 2-0 lead against the Capitals in their March 14 matchup, only to watch Joey Crabb (now in the American Hockey League), Alex Ovechkin and Mike Ribeiro score three unanswered goals in Washington’s 3-2 regulation win.
The Capitals, who were 20 minutes away from a fourth straight defeat and a season-high 12-point deficit in the Southeast Division, have since gone 11-3-1 and moved into first place.
"I think from that game on, the thought in the room before every game is that we can win," Capitals forward Mathieu Perreault said.
"That game was a must-win for us, we had to [come back from a 2-0 deficit] and since that day, we’ve been rolling, and our mindset is that we’re never done. We don’t put our heads down. We feel like it doesn’t matter [if we’re down], we can come back on anybody and that’s the mindset that you need to have at the end of the season and into the playoffs."
The Capitals have trailed in the second period or later in five of their past seven games but have gone 6-0-1 over that stretch.
While the Capitals have made a habit of coming back, their 3-2 win at Carolina on March 14 remains the Hurricanes only blemish when leading after two periods this season (12-1-0) and is the genesis of Carolina’s existing 1-12-1 stretch.
"We have to be mentally tougher and understand the little things that affect the game," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said.
"We all have to be accountable and we have to look at what we could do differently … but I don’t think we’re beating ourselves up. I think this is the challenge we have, we’ve had major injuries and we haven’t been able to get the results from it."
It is also worth noting that the Capitals’ 15-game surge, which began with the win in Carolina, coincides with coach Adam Oates reuniting Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on Washington’s No. 1 line.
"I was probably just looking for a spark," Oates conceded nearly one month later.
In the 15 games since, Ovechkin has an NHL-high 17 goals and 24 points while Backstrom has 18 assists and 21 points.