WASHINGTON - The Washington Capitals are back where they expected to be, riding an eight-game winning streak and challenging for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
One of their own was designated the NHL's No. 1 star of the week on Monday, getting his own conference call with the national media.
It wasn't Alex Ovechkin or Alexander Semin. And it definitely wasn't Nicklas Backstrom or Mike Green—they're both injured.
Turns out, the man in the spotlight was Braden Holtby.
The 21-year-old rookie goaltender has played in all of 12 NHL games. Holtby went 4-0 on the week, allowing just four goals and getting his first shutout.
"I just hoping I can make my stay last up here," Holtby said, "and get a few more games and hopefully keep this winning streak going."
The Capitals are winning because they've gradually become more physical and more gritty as they adapt to the more defensive-minded approach initiated by coach Bruce Boudreau during an eight-game losing streak in December. The trade deadline pickups—especially Jason Arnott—have meshed in nicely and have yet to experience losing in a Capitals uniform.
The team that routed opponents with tons of flashy goals last season has mastered the edge-of-your-seat victory: Six of the eight victories in the winning streak are by a single goal, plus another that was won in a shootout.
It's just what the Capitals need to perfect after recent seasons of playoff disappointment.
"It's just practice for what's coming up," said Mike Knuble, who scored the winning goal in overtime in Sunday's 4-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. "You're not going to score off the rush on pretty tic-tac-toe plays, and that's something you try to hammer home to guys. You watch playoff games, they're ugly—you're kicking them in around the crease, guys diving for the puck and trying to jam it in. The way you're going to win the game is just who's going to be grittier around the net."
Ovechkin is rounding back into form as well, even though he's still on pace for his worst season statistically as an NHL player. He has just 28 goals and 73 points—well below his career-lows of 46 and 92—but he had a seven-game points streak until he was kept off the score sheet in Sunday's game.
The Capitals face tough decisions about their goalies and who will be in net when playoffs open.
One noteworthy statistic sums up the situation: The Capitals on Sunday became the first team in NHL history to get seven or more victories from three goalies 22 or younger.
This season was supposed to be all about Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, the two youngsters would share the load and duel for the No. 1 job come the spring. Both have played well, but they've been hurt.
Holtby, by default, has become the man of the hour, coming up the minors because the logjam in front of him suddenly cleared. Neuvirth is now healthy, and Varlamov should be returning any day now. With only 12 games to go in the regular season—including a six-game road trip that starts Tuesday in Montreal—Boudreau will have to make a difficult decision very soon.
"They're really not making it easy on me," the coach said. "I'm not trying to be aloof here. Varly was going great, and then he gets hurt. Neuvy was going great; he gets hurt. Holtby's going great now. We want to make a decision pretty soon. They're all playing so well, it's making it difficult for us."
Meanwhile, the winning streak made for an upbeat entry Monday on owner Ted Leonsis' blog, even as he pointed out that success is making his inbox noticeably lighter.
"When we lost our 8th game in a row earlier in the season, I received more than 100 emails overnight with loads of suggestions," Leonsis wrote. "My email inbox wasn't pretty. After we won the 8 game in a row, I received less than 10 emails. What does that tell us about human nature? Thank you to those of you who were nice to send me nice thoughts last night! Go Caps!"