On March 7, 2020, the Capitals played one of their best games of the season dominating the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2 on the road. The win gave hope that a scuffling Washington may finally, finally have figured something out and was on the path to returning to its dominant self. All of that hope was extinguished in the very next game as the Caps fell in a shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres on March 9.
In 2021, a scuffling Caps team played its most complete game of the season Tuesday in a 3-1 victory of Pittsburgh on the road. But that win won't mean anything if Washington follows it up with a lackluster performance in their next game...which just so happens to be against Buffalo.
Looking back at the Pittsburgh game in 2020, the Caps went into that game with three losses in four games. Those three losses were a shutout to Winnipeg, a blowout at the hands of Philadelphia at home and giving up five goals to Mika Zibanejad in a loss to New York. Those are three pretty bad losses and it reflected a team that had been in a complete tailspin since December.
Sure, Washington had been able to string some wins together and some of those wins were big ones. They even beat Pittsburgh on Feb. 23. The game on March 7, however, felt different. It was a dominant performance the likes of which the team had not managed since an incredible start to the season propelled them to the best record in the NHL. Washington scored three times in the first period and added a shorthanded goal in the third to make it 4-0 before Pittsburgh could even get on the board. Even when the Penguins rallied to make it 4-2, a goal from T.J. Oshie less than a minute later slammed the door shut.
And then, just two days later, playing against one of the worst teams in the league, the Caps completely fell apart. Washington had to rally from a 2-0 deficit just to earn a point that they honestly didn't deserve.
Yes, trap games happen in the NHL. This was not one of them. From Dec. 23 up to that game in Buffalo, Washington was 15-14-2, the 21st best record in the league. You don't get to have "trap games" if you are among the bottom third of the NHL and playing .500 hockey. You don't get to use the excuse of a trap game when you lost three of your last five and all three losses were embarrassing. I don't buy it.
As we know now, the win over Pittsburgh turned out to be the outlier and the loss to Buffalo was a more accurate reflection of the state of the team.
What does this have to do with 2021?
It's more than just a scheduling parallel of playing Buffalo after a big win over Pittsburgh. It's about how Washington can build on a big win.
In that horrific stretch from Dec. 23, 2019 to March 12, 2020, Washington was 6-8-1 in games following a win. The team was completely incapable of building any momentum or sustaining any success at all.
Fast forward to 2021. After a 6-0-3 start in which, let's be honest, the Caps did not play as well as their record indicated, Washington dropped four straight in regulation prior to Tuesday's win. The feeling from the team and from head coach Peter Laviolette during the losing streak was that the team was actually playing better than at the start of the season and results just weren't there. Well, now is the chance to prove it.
Tuesday's win was a reflection of what the Caps can do when they put together a full 60-minute performance, but they have to build on that. It's not enough to know that they can do that, they have to actually do it consistently to make sure a good game isn't exactly that, just one good game. Playing a Buffalo team that is 4-6-2 and was outscored 6-1 in its two games since returning to action after a lengthy COVID-related delay, there is no excuse for a bad performance on Thursday.
It would be ridiculous to label Game No. 15 as a "must win," but Washington has to play like the team that showed up in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. That win has to be a sign of progress, a sign that the team is playing as well as Laviolette and the players say they are. I'm not saying they have to blowout the Sabres or even win on Thursday -- hockey is a dumb game sometimes and dumb things can happen -- but at the very least the Caps have to show the same level of dominance as they did Tuesday.
Washington is not the team that went 6-0-3 to start or the one that went 0-4-0. They are somewhere in between. Thursday's game will be a reflection of which end of the spectrum the Caps lean more towards at this point in the season.