As the doors to the Washington Capitals’ locker room opened after Friday’s 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens, a tangible sense of relief rushed down the hallway as if the entire team breathed a collective sigh.
The Caps had every reason to do so; a much-needed win – one that snapped a three-game losing streak – alleviated just a bit of the pressure mounting around them. With the trade deadline looming Monday and Washington failing to win consecutive games in over a month, there was nothing but negativity surrounding the team.
Everything seemed to go right Friday. The Caps finally scored the game’s first goal, breaking a streak of six games where they trailed first; they scored in the first period, breaking another dubious seven-game streak which saw them give up nine unanswered first period goals; they got secondary scoring as Mathieu Perreault, Jason Chimera and Joel Ward scored important goals throughout the game; Michal Neuvirth, making his first appearance at Verizon Center since before Christmas, made 30 saves in his best effort in over a month. One win, for at least one night, eased the tension.
Yet, while the Caps are definitely relieved, they are and cannot afford to be satisfied.
“We’re still on the outside looking in right now,” Matt Hendricks said, adding that the team has no reason to be satisfied. “We feel we belong in the playoffs and we need to do everything in our power to get there.”
Friday’s win put the Caps in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Florida Panthers and two points behind the Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg Jets. There is little margin for error with 21 games remaining; despite defeating the cellar-dwelling Canadiens, the Caps are only seven points ahead of them.
There is still a myriad of questions and concerns surrounding Washington. With only one game before the aforementioned trade deadline, Saturday’s game against the 10th place Toronto Maple Leafs may be the last time this current crop of Caps plays together as a team. There is also the question of veteran leadership; considering Mike Knuble and Roman Hamrlik were both scratched as well as Neuvirth starting in place of Tomas Vokoun, the three oldest active players Friday were Jeff Halpern, Keith Aucoin and Chimera. Washington also cannot continually beat up on Montreal; in their last 17 games, the Caps have six wins, three of which are against the Canadiens. Not only that, but the Caps only have three wins in their last 13 road games, two of which are also against the Canadiens, so they need to simply beat other teams.
When expectations are as high as those levied on the Caps, anything short of reaching them is considered a failure. Frankly, Washington could still statistically fulfill those expectations, but to get that opportunity, it has to realize for the next six weeks that there is no such thing as satisfaction.
“This was a big game for us, but it’s an even bigger game tomorrow,” Perreault said. “It’s another big two points tomorrow. We’re fighting to get into the playoffs right now and every game is just as important as the other one.”