The Caps are now 13-2-1 in their last 16 games. They have ridden an eight-game win streak to the top of the Southeast Division and are now third in the Eastern Conference standings with 50 points.
But what must the Capitals do to further ensure their trip to the postseason? And what would have to go wrong for the team's hopes to be dashed?
Here are five factors that will make or break the Washington Capitals' postseason hopes.
Note: All statistics courtesy of NHL.com unless noted otherwise.
Injuries can make or break the postseason hopes of every NHL team. The Washington Capitals are no different.
The Capitals have dealt with significant injuries to significant players throughout the season, and it has not slowed down as the drive for the playoffs kicks into high gear.
Eric Fehr recently discussed this topic with Mark Giannotto of The Washington Post saying, "we’ve got some really good players out of the lineup right now, and you’re playing with fire when that happens. It’s not easy to win games in this league at the best of times."
But at the same time, the Capitals players sense something has changed among them. They now feel more comfortable in head coach Adam Oates' system and therefore, better able to deal with injuries and changes in the lineup. Nicklas Backstrom said that at "every position, we’re better and working harder, and that’s the key. You’ve got to chip in for each other.” (The Washington Post)
Eric Fehr of The Washington Post has even noticed that this increased comfort within the system has led to an increase in the team's overall confidence, and thus an improved ability to overcome obstacles on the ice:
It’s a world of difference. We believe in ourselves no matter what the score is. Feels a lot like the teams in the past, where we can be down one or two and we’re not fazed by it. We feel we can come back. You can definitely feel there’s a little swagger in the dressing room.
These are good qualities for the Capitals to have as they turn for home.
Under assistant coach and former NHL defender Calle Johansson, the Washington blueliners have been urged since training camp to activate in the offensive zone. And the philosophy seems to be paying off.
Through Monday's games, John Carlson and Mike Green were sixth and eighth on the team in points with 20 and 17, respectively.
The performances of John Erskine, Steve Oleksy and Jack Hillen are even more impressive. All three have seen limited action this season: Erskine and Hillen due to injuries; Oleksy due to a mid-season call-up. Yet the trio has still been productive: (Hockey Reference)
- John Erskine, 24 games: 0.21 points per game
- Jack Hillen, 17 games: 0.35 points per game
- Steve Oleksy, 22 games: 0.41 points per game
This offensive production from the defensive corps has been a boon to the Washington Capitals. Without it, they would probably not be where they are in the Eastern Conference standings, safely inside the top eight.
Mike Green has also played well during that same stretch, playing with a comfort and flair on offense not seen since the 2009-10 season, when he finished with 19 goals and 57 assists for 76 points. Through Tuesday's games, Green was second in the NHL for goals by a defenseman with 10.
To put the recent play of Ovechkin and Green into proper perspective, take a look at this statistic, tweeted on April 16 by Kevin Gibson from the Research Department at TSN:
Not to be outdone, Nicklas Backstrom has been deadly as well. In the 16 games since March 17, Backstrom has assists in 12 and points in 13, for a total of 19 assists and 22 points. He is currently riding a seven-game assist streak and a nine-game point-scoring streak and is now ranked third in the NHL in assists with 38.
This charge by the so-called "Young Guns" has spurred on the Washington Capitals. Since March 17, the Caps are 13-2-1. They are currently on an eight-game winning streak, which means they have yet to lose in the month of April.
The Washington Capitals rode this stellar play of the Young Guns into first place in the Southeast Division, earning them a four-point lead with five games to play. The Caps could nail down a playoff spot in short order, as long as these three marksmen don't run out of bullets.
At this point in the season, many NHL head coaches choose to reduce the amount of rest and days off afforded to the team's No. 1 goalie, in preparation for the playoffs. That way, the starting goalie will become accustomed to the heavy workload, so it becomes second nature when the grueling postseason schedule begins.
Not Adam Oates.
Braden Holtby was given 11 straight starts, starting with the game on March 17. During that stretch of the Capitals' schedule, Holtby went 8-2-1, stopping 311 of 337 shots for a .923 save percentage. (ESPN.com)
Then, Oates gave Neuvirth two consecutive starts. The first of those two was on April 7 and was the second game of a back-to-back. In that instance, Neuvirth was providing Holtby with some much needed rest.
I think that going forward — hopefully we get in a good playoff run — you’re going to need both goalies. You will. I don’t want him to feel that just once every 10 games he’s going to play. He needs to know that he’s a part of our team that he played good the other night and gets the start tonight. [It] gives Holts a little more rest and we’ll go forward.
Neuvirth ended up playing well both nights, winning the two games and saving 55 of 59 shots for a .932 save percentage. (ESPN.com)
The longer this rotation works, the better. But if one or both of the goalies cool off for Adam Oates, the Capitals are in trouble.
Ever since claiming the Southeast Division lead from the Winnipeg Jets on April 4, the Capitals progress has been minimized.
That is because the Jets have fired up their engines, as well.
Winnipeg is currently on a four-game win streak and is 5-5-0 in their last 10 games as they currently sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 46 points. The Jets trail the New York Rangers for the eighth and final playoff spot due to the NHL's tiebreaking procedure and are only four points behind Washington for the Southeast Division lead and the highly coveted third seed.
If the Jets continue streaking, then a stall by the Capitals would allow Winnipeg to fly right by and ruin the favorable forecast in Washington. Such a nightmare scenario may cost the Capitals a playoff spot.