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Capitals seeking steadier ending

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Washington Capitals are close to securing both a spot in the postseason and another Southeast Division title, but there is work to be done in the team's final eight regular-season games.

While the Caps have won five of their past seven games, their play remains susceptible to lapses in key areas that could prevent a prolonged postseason run.

"When everyone is playing up to their capabilities and playing the system, then we are fine," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We do it two out of every three games, but in that third game we get inconsistent. Hopefully in these last eight games we can get it better and go in on a little bit of a high."

Since a five-game point streak in mid-February, Washington has been a model of inconsistency with wins in eight of 16 contests. It hasn't been enough to put another division title in jeopardy - the Caps are five points away from clinching - but it has exposed a few flaws to be corrected.

There have been nights when the defense in front of goaltender Jose Theodore has been suspect. In other games, the forwards have failed to provide ample support. Overall effort has come into question in games in which the Caps weren't doing enough to draw penalties or putting in the extra work to solve hot goaltenders.

It begs two questions: Are the Caps coasting into the playoffs? And is it time to be concerned?

"I don't think 'concerned' is the right word," forward Brooks Laich said. "I think we want to be playing our best hockey, and we don't want to go into the playoffs having to address any issues. We want our power play to be clicking. We want our penalty kill to be clicking. We want to stop taking hooking penalties, tripping penalties - we just want to go in playing a sound game, a solid defensive game."

Added Boudreau: "Every team has a sense of urgency. You can sit there and talk until you're blue in the face about how important, how important - they know how important it is. ... I'd like to win eight in a row, but if we don't, I'll take it, and whoever we play in the playoffs, we'll be prepared for them and we'll go after them."

Last week, Boudreau made the analogy that hockey is not like a faucet - teams can't just turn it on and off whenever they want. The Caps can use these final eight games to work out the issues and build momentum for the postseason.

None of the opponents in this closing stretch were in the top eight of the Eastern Conference before Monday's games. There are no "measuring stick" games against teams like Boston or New Jersey, but there are opportunities for the Caps to prove they can play with a more consistent effort.

"The schedule isn't something we can control," Laich said. "In here we know when we play a good game and we know when we play a bad game. We know when we're tight on our system and when we're taking bad penalties. It is 74 games into the season; we don't rely on another team to let us know how we're playing."

There are also advantages to being in this situation. Players who might be pressed into action because the team is in dire need of two points can rest. The players don't have to go home from the rink and worry about their fate being decided by the results of games they don't play in.

Boudreau has been able to give his team days off between games to help conserve energy for the playoffs. Last season the Caps rolled into the playoffs with six straight wins... and then lost in the first round.

"This year maybe we're a little more relaxed right now than we were last year, but it is a good thing. We wanted to work hard all season so we weren't in a position where we had to [rally to make the playoffs]," defenseman Mike Green said. "Maybe this year we won't run out of gas and we'll have that extra step when we need it."

Added center Sergei Fedorov: "Odd things can happen, but we're looking at the overall, [and] overall we're on course. Some hiccups will happen along the road - that is just human nature. ... I think we just need to refocus, sharpen our defensive play and we'll be right back in it again."