MONTREAL - It has been a roller-coaster season for the Washington Capitals but they may finally have settled into playing a tighter defensive game than the high-flying style that saw them crash out in the playoffs last spring.
There are more 2-1 scores than 6-5s, but the Capitals are winning again after a mid-season adjustment to a more defensive style of play that they hope will take them far into the post-season.
"A lot of times (last season) we'd go into the third leading 2-1 and the game would finish 5-3 or 5-4. But now the games are going 2-1 and then finishing 3-1, so I think overall we're a much more confident team when the game's on the line and we're much more used to playing in tight games," veteran Mike Knuble said, as his team prepared for Tuesday night's game versus the Montreal Canadiens.
"And that's how playoff hockey's going to be."
The Capitals arrived in Montreal, part of the scene of their first-round playoff collapse last April, riding an eight-game winning streak, with victories in 11 of their previous 13 games.
The wins vaulted them back into first place in the NHL Southeast Division and back into the race for top spot in the Eastern Conference.
They are a long way from their 121-point, first overall season in 2009-2010, when Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and the rest of their star snipers scored a league-high 318 goals. But all those highlight reel goals got them nowhere in the playoffs.
The Capitals started as heavy favourites against the eighth-place Canadiens last spring and looked to have the best-of-seven series in the bag when they went up three games to one on typical Washington wins of 5-1 and 6-3 in Montreal.
But then the Canadiens' checking and spectacular goaltending from Jaroslav Halak took over. Montreal swept the final three games, holding Ovechkin and Co. to one goal in each contest.
"Ultimately, after what happened last year, our team was going to be judged more on what happens in the spring, in the playoffs," said Knuble. "We started the season with the same mentality and same system that failed us the spring before, so you can either be pig-headed about it and say 'this is our system and damn it, we're going to make it work one way or another,' or you can look in the mirror and say 'it's not working, we might have to change a couple of things here.'
"I think that's what we've done as a group."
The Capitals beat Montreal 3-0 and lost to them 3-2 in overtime in two meetings in Washington earlier this season, with Carey Price now installed as Montreal's top goalie and Halak now playing for the St. Louis Blues.
Washington was starting a six-game road trip that begins and ends in Montreal, but Ovechkin said there was no feeling of dread or bad memories.
"You just forget about it—it's a new day," he said.
The new style of play has been tough on Ovechkin, who has looked thoroughly frustrated for much of a campaign in which the consistent 50-goal man put up only 28 goals through the first 70 games.
However, three of his four goals during their eight-game winning run were game-winners and he has been looking a little more like his old self of late.
"Certain players go through certain stages," coach Bruce Boudreau said of Ovechkin. "He's probably getting more excited because the end of the year is getting near and people have told him that the only thing he has to do is have a better playoffs and, I don't know, the regular season isn't as important.
"(If) what's happening now is winding down and getting ready for the post-season, I'm not sure."
The Capitals were one of the teams that looked to have got just what they needed to fill their gaps at the Feb. 28 trade deadline. They needed a second line centre and got veteran Jason Arnott, and a power-play point man and they got Dennis Wideman. They also added veteran winger Marco Sturm.
But after seven strong games with Washington, Arnott has come down with an undisclosed injury that has him out "week to week." Bourdeau said he will miss the first three games of the road trip at least.
However, Backstrom is set to return after missing three games with an injury and goalie Semyon Varlamov is also due to return, although AHL call-up Braden Holtby has been stellar as the starter of late.