THE CAPITALS return to Tampa today to play the Lightning at Amalie Arena after winning the Stanley Cup there on June 8. They were criticized for going back so soon to the site of that game in what was a black day for the NHL.
Captain Alex Ovechkin was questioned about whether the Capitals should have replayed the Cup final in January and why they seemed to be well on their way to another long playoff run before losing five straight in January and February. Coach Barry Trotz wasn’t concerned at all.
“I know I told you guys we won’t rush into this,” Trotz said. “Again, we have a game. But we’re glad we’re back there. It’s a very unique place, a great arena. It’s a sad night in every sense when you lose a game there.”
But the Capitals got through that slump that seemed to usher in a mediocre season with three victories in a row that begin today. They went from an uninspired 1-4-2 record in January that led to a 10-game winless streak to taking 18 of 21 games to start February.
The Capitals have overcome hurdles before and this season isn’t going to be an exception. They made the playoffs last year despite having a 9-10-1 start, a team goal that falls short of playing for the Cup this year. The Capitals have seen ties, were outshot 30 to 10 on Saturday night and did everything they could to dig themselves out of that hole on Thursday night to beat the New York Rangers in overtime at Verizon Center. They did it after missing on a 6-on-5 chance and a breakaway on that series of goals.
“We have no choice but to be ready for this game, but let’s not become too emotionally consumed with that,” Trotz said. “We’re here to win hockey games, but let’s not get a little carried away. I think we probably let last night get a little carried away. It wasn’t too bad after last night. I think we learned from that. We don’t have a lot of time and we have to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes we did last night. But I don’t think you have time to overdo it on the emotional front. Just kind of calm down a little bit, and we’ll be ready to go.”
Trotz recalled the Capitals’ hot start to the season three years ago, in the midst of a near-ubiquitous rebuilding project that involved trading away players they were comfortable with around that time. “You just believe you can win it,” Trotz said. “Then when we weren’t doing that, it’s like, ‘Uh-oh, what’s going on?’ And when you learn the lesson and keep it in the back of your mind, then you’re a lot better off. We just have to find that same battle-hardened group of players that we had in January and February, where we won nine of 11 and carried that through and found the same resolve we have now.”
The first challenge will be trying to climb back into the points pack. The Caps are fifth in the Metropolitan Division. They are without top center Nicklas Backstrom (groin), but left wing Tom Wilson is expected to play. The NHL’s worst power play – ranked 25th overall going into Wednesday night – has scored at a 17.4 percent clip. They let the game slip away after jumping to a 3-0 lead and have allowed 11 goals on 70 shots in their last three games.
In other words, the Capitals remain six points out of a playoff spot. This game couldn’t come at a better time.