On April 3, the Capitals were handed a 5-1 loss by the Minnesota Wild. It was their second straight blowout loss and the team was outscored 11-2 during that stretch.
Facing a critical point in the season, the Caps held multiple players-only meetings looking for a response. The result? Just one week later, Washington has three straight wins over three playoff teams and now finds itself within striking distance of third place in the Metropolitan Division.
What a difference a week makes.
"Really good response from those two games," head coach Peter Laviolette said. "Certainly we were upfront and said that those weren't the games that we wanted to play and nobody was happy with it. I thought that, just the way we played the games, the decisions that we made with the puck, the competitiveness, the commitment to defense, all of that allows you to play good offense so I thought we did a good job with that."
"I think we knew we weren't happy with how we were playing and wanted to make a stand," John Carlson said. "And I think against three good teams, it's a pretty good run for us and it's something to build on going forward now."
Players-only meetings are always a sign of a team in distress. They tend to come when a team is struggling and wants to settle down. Washington was certainly in that position following a 6-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes followed by a 5-1 loss to Minnesota.
The problem is not so much when those meetings happen, it's what happens afterward. How does the team respond? If you have those meetings and you continue losing, that's a sign that a team is on a downward trajectory and not sure how to rebound. The Caps, however, have responded with three of their biggest wins of the season: a 4-3 win over defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, a 6-3 win in Pittsburgh over the rival Penguins and a 4-2 victory less than 24 hours later against the Boston Bruins.
Washington went from a lock as the second wild card team to, at the time of writing, within two points of the Penguins for third in the division.
"It's just maybe good for the players to be able to be honest and hold each other accountable sometimes instead of just the coaching staff doing that," Lars Eller said.
He added, "Usually, you're not in a good situation when you have to have those meetings but I think we all know the gravity of the situation when we're in that spot and we feel like we need to do that. I think we responded, clearly. I think we're on a little bit better track now than we were a week ago. So a good step in the right direction."
Washington's turnaround is significant on two levels. First, just in terms of the standings, it gives the team a chance to crawl out of the wild card and a probable cross-over to the daunting Atlantic Division back into the top three in the Metropolitan. A first-round matchup against the New York Rangers or Carolina Hurricanes would not be easy, but certainly seems more manageable than a matchup against the buzzsaw Florida Panthers and a second-round matchup against Boston, Tampa Bay or the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But Washington's rebound is also significant as the team tries to ramp up its game and round into playoff form.
History shows that it's not always a team's overall record that matters heading into the playoffs, but how a team is playing. Playing at a high level seems to carry over more once the postseason begins than a team trying to flip that switch once they get there.
"That's something that we talk about is not flipping the switch, though," Carlson said. "That's kind of the reason for the meetings and the reason for how we're not happy with how we're playing because we know that flipping a switch isn't an option for us. We've got to feel comfortable and confident in how we play over a long period of time to really build true confidence."
Washington is going to enter the playoffs as an underdog. They are not going to have home-ice advantage and may still remain as the lowest seed in the conference. When they are playing like they have shown over the last three games, however, they are a tough team to beat and will prove to be a formidable matchup no matter who they play against.
"I think it says a lot," Eller said of the team's performance. "We're all, I think we know how good we're capable of playing, but then doing it on a consistent basis has been the challenge for us since after Christmas, I think. Today, this week, we put together three really strong games with various challenges, some guys coming in and out and I just think, really good team effort."