- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2012

It might be hard for the Washington Capitals to get up for the New York Islanders or Carolina Hurricanes. Bottom-feeding teams don’t exactly engender a lot of enthusiasm, even though Tomas Vokoun disagrees.

“You want to win. I think last week we had a couple stinkers, and there’s no excuse for that,” he said. “I think one thing is you should always have the effort.”

Those two stinkers — both shutouts — and a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday have the Caps stumbling. Tuesday’s showdown with the Boston Bruins already was a big game as it’s the first matchup with the defending Stanley Cup champions, but it’s even more important because it’s the final game before the All-Star break. It’s crucial to the Caps’ psyche.

“Right now, they’re sitting as the class of the East. We don’t want to go home for five days on a [three]-game losing streak,” forward Brooks Laich said. “So we have to have a good game.”

Playing the past nine games without Nicklas Backstrom, Washington has gone 4-4-1 and fluctuated up and down the Eastern Conference standings. A .500 road trip and the Florida Panthers’ inability to go on a run have combined to keep the Capitals in the thick of the Southeast race.

But psychologically it means a lot to leave on winning note.

“When you have five days off and you finish with a win you’re a little bit happier when you go and you’re a little more excited to come back so it’s real important,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “Especially given where we are in the standings, we want to leave ourselves in a good spot going into the break.”

That Boston sits second in the East and has spent much of the season bowling over opponents seems to make this a hard game to win, especially without Backstrom and suspended captain Alex Ovechkin. But the Capitals have thrived against elite opponents, beating the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings at home, and often played to the level of their competition.

“On paper it sure looks that way. We’ve put in some good efforts against the top teams,” veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. “It’s the signal of maybe a team that’s inconsistent. In a perfect world, we’d love to play great every game, but we’re not going to. Good teams play well eight out of 10 times or nine out of 10 times.”

All it takes is one good game against the Bruins to make a troublesome week or so feel not so bad. It also could vault them back into first place in the division.

Facing Boston comes at the perfect time. Hockey players like to talk about measuring sticks, and this is the perfect game for a team still trying to find an identity and some consistency.

“You want to measure yourself against good teams, and they’re a team that plays well,” Laich said. “They play well on both sides of the puck — they can score and they can defend. It’s going to be a tough game.”

Following the loss at Pittsburgh in which Washington surged to a 3-2 lead after surrendering the first two goals, Tuesday’s game is yet another chance to face an opponent at the top of its game.

“It’s still the NHL, and every team is good in the NHL; you can’t say there’s a tiered system in our league. Anybody can beat you on a given night and when you’re not on that right edge and not playing with that extra passion then you have a chance to be beat,” Knuble said. “I still feel that with our group, if we play with the right edge and the right passion we’re not going to be beat.”