Maybe that's why they had a little more jump in their skates, as they took advantage of Hartford's questionable defense and pushed to a 4-1 advantage in the first period and went on to win, 5-2, before 15,918 at the Capital Centre.
"No question this was a must win for us," said Capitals coach Terry Murray. "It was a tremendous two points. I say tremendous because of the way we played tonight, compared to the way we played in Pittsburgh."
Hartford, the second-worst team in the Adams Division, allowed the Capitals to dig in a little tighter in second place in the Patrick Division.
Washington, with its two-point edge over the New York Rangers, has to win the so-called easy ones like Hartford last night and San Jose tomorrow, because after San Jose, things get tougher. Nine of the next 13 games are against Patrick foes, three of which are after the same playoff spots as the Capitals.
"I think we've got to win every game from here on," said Capitals center Mike Ridley. "We've got to come out ready to play. I think we were a little too happy with ourselves going into the Pittsburgh game after winning against Detroit.
"We've got to treat each game like it's the most important game. There are only 15 left now and we don't want to be the one to lose it."
Last night, Dimitri Khristich had four points and Peter Bondra broke an 11-game goal-less streak to lead the Capitals to the victory.
The Whalers tried a little bit of everything in the final minutes, pulling goalie Mario Gosselin for a sixth attacker while on the power play, only to have it backfire with 1:16 to play. Khristich scored into an empty net for his second hat trick of the season and his career.
Hartford ..1 1 0 -- 2
Washington 4 0 1 -- 5
First period--1, Hartford, Janssens 10 (McKenzie, Burt), 1:47. 2, Washington, Khristich 26, 2:51. 3, Washington, Khristich 27 (Pivonka), 3:50. 4, Washington, Bondra 30 (Hatcher, Khristich), 16:13. 5, Washington, Elynuik 17 (Iafrate, Cote), 17:48. Penalties--Greig, Har (holding), 9:00; Ridley, Was (hooking), 11:29.
Second period--6, Hartford, Weinrich 6 (McKenzie, Nylander), 8:51. Penalties--Keczmer, Har (holding), 5:18; Ladouceur, Har (holding), 5:23; Keczmer, Har (roughing), 13:40; Bondra, Was (high-sticking), 13:40; Yake, Har (holding), 14:18; Hatcher, Was (hooking), 16:33; Miller, Was (hooking), 17:53; Johansson, Was (delay of game), 18:48.
Third period--7, Washington, Khristich 28 (Elynuik, Cote), 18:45 (sh-en). Penalties--Poulin, Har (high-sticking), 3:21; Cote, Was (interference), 6:21; Miller, Was (interference), 16:46.
Shots on goal--Hartford 5-9-3--17. Washington 16-12-7--35. Power-play opportunities--Hartford 0 of 6; Washington 0 of 5. Goalies--Hartford, Gosselin, 1-2-1 (34 shots-30 saves). Washington, Beaupre, 22-19-5 (17-15). A--15,918. Referee--Mark Faucette. Linesmen--Jean Morin, Mark Pare.