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Capitals ready for closing stretch

Team resumes play still without three key parts

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OTTAWA — Coming out of the NHL All-Star break, the Washington Capitals should be rested and refreshed. All-Star defenseman Dennis Wideman and call-ups Cody Eakin and Joel Rechlicz were the only ones playing over the past several days, with players taking various trips to recharge for the final 34 regular-season games.

But for the next two, Tuesday night at the Tampa Bay Lightning and Wednesday night at the Florida Panthers, Washington still will be without suspended superstar Alex Ovechkin and injured young guns Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. It's a hard adjustment, but playing without all three could focus the Capitals because there's a sharp need for prime performances without the trio.

"Obviously, we're not as dangerous offensively without Ovi and Nicky in the lineup. I think we have to make sure we concentrate and play really tight defensively and keep their scoring chances to a minimum," Wideman said. "Because we might not score quite as many and might not be quite as explosive offensively, so we just have to keep the game a little simpler and grind it out and try to get some goals."

It's a style change that paid off in Washington's pre-All-Star break win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. With talent lacking, the Caps matched Boston's physical style and used flashes of speed to move back into first place in the Southeast Division.

"When guys get their opportunity to move up in the lineup they're going to bring that third-, fourth-line mentality, where we get pucks deep," forward Matt Hendricks said.

That might not lead to a whole lot of goals, but given the Capitals' solid goaltending lately, a stringent defensive approach could be just what they need this week. Not counting defenseman Tom Poti, they'll have $22.5 million worth of talent out of the lineup Tuesday and Wednesday in the form of left wing Ovechkin, center Backstrom and defensemen Green and Jeff Schultz.

Can that be a good thing?

"I think it helps a little bit," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "The guys pick up their game that much more to chip in because they're going to get a couple extra - or a minute to three minutes extra ice time because Ovi's not in."

Naturally, the sight of Ovechkin in a suit in the press box is unnatural. He and the team were not happy with the three-game suspension he received for a hit on Pittsburgh defenseman Zbynek Michalek, and he can't play again until Saturday at the Montreal Canadiens.

"It hurts us," Hendricks said. "Obviously, we lose our captain, we lose our leader, our offensive threat - all these intangibles that he brings to our team."

Beating the Bruins behind a hat trick from Mathieu Perreault last week provided a confidence boost in Ovechkin's first game out of the lineup. Perreault likely won't be able to score like that again, but then it comes down to the tight-checking defensive system that Dale Hunter has implemented.

"You need the team and the system to lean back on and rely on," forward Jeff Halpern said. "[Ovechkin is] obviously a big part, but there's other ways we can find a way to win."

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