- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008

The last team the Capitals wanted to be playing yesterday was the New Jersey Devils, a team that had won six of its last seven and was beginning its push for the No. 1 playoff seed. Golfers talk about the hole getting smaller when things are going against them; well, when you’re firing pucks at a brick wall like Martin Brodeur, the net seems to get smaller.

Brodeur and the defensive-minded Devils don’t give you a whole lot. Yesterday they gave the Caps just one goal — Alexander Semin’s in the third period — which wasn’t quite enough for a struggling Washington club desperate for a victory. And so Bruce Boudreau’s kiddie corps had to settle for half a loaf, one point, in a 2-1 overtime loss at Verizon Center.

Coming on the heels of a Saturday night slip-up at Carolina — an early lead that turned into a 6-3 shelling of Olie Kolzig — it wasn’t the worst consolation prize in the world. New Jersey, after all, could skate off with another Stanley Cup this season. But the Capitals sure could have used a confidence booster heading into the last 19 games of their schedule, each of which figures to have a certain urgency attached to it.

As Mike Green put it, “Every game … for the rest of the year is going to be the biggest game of the season, starting with Tuesday night against Minnesota.”

For the Caps, the relevant numbers right now are five, two and 315:31. The first is the margin by which they trail the division-leading Hurricanes, the second is the games they have in hand and the third — this is a toughie — is how long it has been, in minutes and seconds, since Alex Ovechkin put the puck in the net.

Ovechkin got blanked for the fifth straight game yesterday, his longest dry spell of the season. He has four assists during that stretch, of course, one of them coming on the aforementioned goal by Semin, but it’s much harder for the Caps to win when Alexander the Great doesn’t score.

Not that Boudreau is obsessing about it — at least publicly. “One thing about Alex: If he’s not putting ‘em in, he’s setting ‘em up,” he said. “[But] he’s going to get his [goals]. He’ll get going again.”

In the third period, in particular, Ovechkin was a tornado of activity, setting up Eric Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom and Semin a couple of times. But Fehr hit the post and, on the others, Brodeur was Brodeur.

“Marty gave us an opportunity to get our game in order,” said Jersey coach Brent Sutter, whose team was outshot 28-10 in the first 40 minutes yet remained tied 0-0. “It could have been a lot worse for us [going into the third period].”

Hitting the post, Green noted, is something the Capitals have done far too often lately. (It happened to Matt Bradley yesterday, too.) To the Caps defenseman, though, it’s less a matter of bad luck than of not “bearing down on our chances and making sure the puck hits the back of the net.”

Whatever the explanation, the team can ill afford it. Since their 6-14-1 start under the deposed Glen Hanlon, the Capitals have been operating with precious little margin for error. Their play has picked up under Boudreau but only to the point of being, at this stage, definitively average — 28-28-7.

Still, the Caps have had their moments, enough of them to hold out hope that they can sneak into the playoffs this season — after a five-year absence — and not keep their faithful fans waiting any longer. For starters, there are the four wins in four tries against the Senators, who are battling the Devils for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. There are also the three one-goal games against New Jersey that have netted Washington three points. It’s not like this club can’t compete against the best.

That, it seems, is the next step for the Capitals: developing the night-in, night-out consistency to get the results against Everybody Else that they’ve gotten against the Senators and Devils. But then, young teams can be like that — as Boudreau, who toiled in the minor leagues all those years, knows only too well.

“If you look over our record,” he said, “we play everybody tough. Our games are close. [Except for a handful of them], every one was winnable.”

In the final six weeks of the season, the Caps have to find a way to win more of those “winnable” games — games like yesterday’s post-rattling loss to New Jersey. They have enough chances left … if they can get hot again like they did after Boudreau took over.

It would help greatly, though, if Alex Ovechkin stopped being Adam Oates and went back to being Alex Ovechkin. In fact, it might be just about all they’d need.

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