Washington Capitals left wing Jason Chimera (25) celebrates his goal with Mathieu Perreault (85) against the Winnipeg Jets during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, April 23, 2013, in Washington. Jets defenseman Grant Clitsome (24) skates away from the celebration. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Twenty games ago, Capitals forward Mathieu Perreault perused his team's remaining schedule.
The Capitals had just snapped a three-game losing streak by erasing a two-goal first-period deficit in a 3-2 victory over the Hurricanes March 14, which afforded them just enough space to burrow through the Eastern Conference crawl space and into 12th place.
"I remember... looking at the schedule," Perreault said Tuesday, after Washington clinched its sixth consecutive playoff berth with a 5-3 win over Winnipeg at Verizon Center. "Like, 'Man, we're probably going to have to go 16-4 to get in.'"
As recently as last month, to say that the then-wayward Capitals' future looked bleak would have been considered an understatement. Logically, it was, considering Washington's consistent inconsistency, but the best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.
And for those last 20 games, the Capitals had faith, they had hope, and they worked, essentially validating Perreault's prescience with a 15-4-1 record. Tuesday, they were rewarded.
For the fifth time in six seasons, the seventh time overall and the last time, they are Southeast Division champions.
"Obviously, it's a good feeling," forward Nicklas Backstrom said, adding that his fifth division title was the most satisfying considering the journey it took to claim it. "It's been a little up and down, like a roller coaster, but I think we stuck together and worked as a team and now we're in the playoffs, so that's a good feeling."
One of the signs of a good team is when it takes on the identity of its coach. Recent coaching instability had left the Capitals mired in a perpetual identity crisis, but Adam Oates slowly but surely steadied the course.
Like their first-year head coach, the Capitals transformed into an even-keeled, cerebral group, never getting too high or too low despite their recent successes and early pratfalls.
If there was ever any doubt, it was indistinguishable.
"That was probably what we talked about the most: ‘Don’t push the panic button, don’t show doubt, just be professional and talk about it,'" Oates said. "Quite honestly, what else can you do? We were obviously not winning hockey games, and it was a very difficult situation, and you just try to talk the guys through it. And they were great about it."
Another trait that Oates has instilled in his players is a short memory. It took 94 grueling days for the Capitals to clinch the division and the subsequent playoff berth, but it only took them a few hours to forget about them.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs await next week, where illogic is the norm. But the logic-be-damned Capitals, once damned by logic, would not prefer it any other way.
"It’s one step," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "Now we move on, focus on the playoffs and what we have to do there.
"[Winning the division is] not a big deal. To me, those things don’t matter. It’s the Stanley Cup that’s the only thing that matters. This is a step in the right direction, but we have a lot more work to do. And it starts now.”
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