At one point late in the second period of Sunday's East Division showdown against the New York Rangers, both the scoreboard and the underlying metrics not only favored the Capitals, they showed total control.
The Capitals led by three goals. They hadn’t allowed a high-danger chance and attempted eight of their own. The Rangers still had a single digit shot total. The first 40 minutes were fantastic.
Then, the tide completely changed.
Washington allowed four goals in a 10-minute stretch in the third period and was outshot, out-attempted and out-chanced in the final frame. But a few timely third-period goals, paired with their fantastic start, lifted the Capitals to a 5-4 win at Capital One Arena on Sunday afternoon.
“Collectively as a team we’ve got to understand whether it’s 1-0 or 4-0 going into the third period all the teams in this division can score goals and be dangerous,” Washington defenseman Brenden Dillon said. “I think the positive out of all this is I don’t think we’ve truly played a full 60-minute game this year that we can look there and say first shift to last shift we were solid defensively and all that and we’re still continuing to collect points and get some wins.”
Of course, the final 25 or so minutes that Washington put its foot on the brake was preceded by a dominant stretch of hockey.
The Rangers didn’t have a high-danger chance at five-on-five as the second period wound down. The Capitals at one point were outshooting the Rangers 8-1 at five-on-five and didn’t allow much of anything in front of goaltender Ilya Samsonov, who flirted with his second straight shutout for much of the afternoon.
Then the Rangers flipped it into gear.
“Well, I don’t think it was a perfect third period for us tonight,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “You know, we’re up in front and gave up a couple early, and that kind of put them in the game. And from there, they keep playing and keep pushing but they chip in another one. They get a power-play goal. Again, we’ll talk about it, try to get better from it.”
As Laviolette has mentioned all season, it’s nearly impossible for a team in the NHL to maintain such dominance, especially over a team with talented scorers, for 60 minutes. While that may be true, the Capitals still are looking for ways to prevent four-goal outbursts in the final period.
“We know teams are going to make a push,” T.J. Oshie said. “Any time you're down one, two, three goals, whatever it is and I feel like there's been times throughout the year where we've gotten ourselves in good position going into the third we maybe take our foot off the gas. Not a lot, but just a little bit on our forecheck or in our neutral zone. I don't know if it's really a case of turnovers, it was more so we didn't really stay on the attack.”
But even if the Capitals haven’t played their very best as Dillon indicated, they’ve set themselves up nicely for the postseason push in the coming weeks.
Sunday’s win tied them with the Lightning for first in the league with 50 points. The Capitals are 23-7-4, have won 14 of 16 games and have a 14-point cushion from the top of the division to the fifth seed, and thus no playoff appearance, with just 22 games to play.
They’ve done much of that with Lars Eller out of the lineup, Tom Wilson on suspension and, as Dillon said, not even playing their best hockey.
“Every game's very different and you learn from it,” Wilson said. “That being said, if there's a trend, we want to address it. The whole season is definitely just to get ready for the meaningful hockey. I mean, you want to win games, you want to get there and you want to build your game and feel good about it going into the playoffs so we've got to keep collecting points first and foremost and playing the right way is always nice.”