WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals took care of the business they needed to by holding off the Philadelphia Flyers in a 3-1 victory at Capital One Arena on Sunday.
It wasn't their best effort. They owed a big thank you to goalie Braden Holtby, who made 35 saves, 19 in the second period, to keep them ahead 2-1 until they found their legs and more of their game in the third period with Jakub Vrana's breakaway goal at 8:07 increasing their lead to two.
But the most important thing was that they got the win and the accompanying two points, which kept them one point ahead of the New York Islanders for first place in the Metropolitan Division and moved them three points ahead of the idle Pittsburgh Penguins.
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"There was points in that game where we weren't at our best, and [Holtby] kind of had our back," forward Tom Wilson said. "But there were good things that we did, too. We finished on some pucks and had a few more chances, but we'll keep pushing forward."
Up next for the Capitals is a home-and-home series with the Carolina Hurricanes that begins at Washington on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NBCSWA, NHL.TV) and concludes at PNC Arena on Thursday. With six regular-season games remaining, they are still trying to find a way to play their best consistently.
Video: PHI@WSH: Holtby shuts down Konecny, Gostisbehere
The defending Stanley Cup champions are 17-7-2 since Feb. 1 but have had a lull in the past week when they won one of their four games prior to Sunday (1-2-1), including the first two games of this four-game homestand (0-1-1).
"We were really on the right path, and then this last little bit we've just went up and down a little bit," Holtby said. "I think that's something that we know and we now can really use this as a building block moving forward, a little confidence moving into that last stretch because we're going to play some good teams. I''ll be a good opportunity for us to fine-tune our game."
After missing an opportunity to extend their division lead to five points with an uninspired performance in a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Friday, the Capitals watched the Islanders (4-2 at the Flyers) and the Penguins (3-2 at the Dallas Stars) each win on Saturday to move within one point of the division lead. That put some pressure on them win Sunday to remain in first.
"You see it, for sure, and you're aware of it," Wilson said of the division standings. "But it doesn't really matter. You've got to collect as many points as you can. The big thing about this time of year is feeling good about your game and executing. We didn't feel that we really did that against Minnesota very well and just wanted kind of a bounce-back game and we did enough to get the win."
Wilson's deflection goal 3:52 into the game gave Washington the good start it needed, and Travis Boyd's deflection made it 2-0 with 9:13 remaining in the second period. But despite playing on Saturday when the Capitals were resting, Philadelphia controlled play for much of the second period, outshooting Washington 20-7 and pulling within 2-1 on Jakub Voracek's power-play goal with 2:50 left in the second.
That led to some soul searching in the Capitals locker room during the second intermission.
"We just focused on ourselves there," Vrana said. "We didn't worry about did they play or not (on Saturday). We just want to focus on our game style and what we need to get better on. Obviously, it was a strong, strong third period, which we needed."
Video: PHI@WSH: Holtby denies Hartman at the doorstep
The Capitals know how well they're capable of playing from going toe-to-toe in two games recently against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have clinched the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's top team in the regular season.
Washington started slowly but pushed back hard in a 6-3 loss (aided by two Lightning empty-net goals) at Tampa Bay on March 16. Then, the Capitals outshot the Lightning 58-28 in a 5-4 overtime loss at Washington on Wednesday.
"I think we know we still have more than that to give," Holtby said. "If we're satisfied with that, we're probably not going to beat them in a seven-game series. We know we have to give more. We were really close that way. So, that's why it's exciting to get into this last little part (of the regular season) because we know it's a fun time to really push yourselves to see how much you can get."
The Capitals face the Lightning again on Saturday at Tampa Bay. That will likely be their last chance to make an impression should they meet again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, likely in the Eastern Conference Final.
The Capitals visit the Florida Panthers on April 1 before closing out the regular season at home against the Montreal Canadiens on April 4 and the Islanders on April 6. First place in the division could be on the line in that final game against the Islanders.
But the Capitals know they can't afford to look past their next game on Tuesday. The flu bug has struck recently and they didn't know until game time whether forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Carl Hagelin would be able to play against the Flyers.
That was another reason they were grateful to win.
"There are some positives, but for the most part I was trying to get through the game with what we had," coach Todd Reirden said. "I didn't know what we were going to have up until really warmup and then after warmup was another evaluation period just when you're going through some of this illness within our team. Fortunate that our goaltender was a difference-maker tonight."