The Washington Times - November 14, 2009, 08:08AM

Alex Ovechkin’s return is near, which is a really good thing for the Washington Capitals (yeah, that’s why I get paid the … well, I get paid to do this, anyway). That he will be returning to a team that is in a better place than when he left it is a potentially great thing for the Caps.

Flash back to five games ago. The Caps had a (mostly) nice record, but there were issues, namely discipline, holding third-period leads and playing down to inferior competition. Flash back to four games ago. Game One without Ovechkin (a 3-2 loss in New Jersey) was ugly.


In a span of 10 days, the Caps have won four games, figured out how to score goals without No. 8 and surged to the top of the Eastern Conference. Now I’m back on the train to Newark again (can’t complain about getting both trips to Newark out of the way before Thanksgiving) and heading for a showdown between the two best teams in the East … or at least the two teams that have the most points right now. 

To be fair, the Caps still had a game with penalty problems and a blown third-period lead against inferior competition (all against the Islanders) and all four wins without Ovechkin came against teams that could very well be playing golf after 82 games. That said, the Caps put together one of their best efforts of the year last night and would have won that game by several goals if not for the sparkling goaltending of Josh Harding.

A few things before a nice, mid-train nap:

* The Caps are going to miss Mike Knuble, who is expected to be out 3-4 weeks with a broken finger. Getting Ovechkin back in the coming days (can’t rule out tonight) will help soften the blow. Also, as well as the Fehr-Perreault-Clark line has been playing, this should be a chance for one or both of Fehr and Clark to see more ice time.

As much as everyone has been gushing about Mathieu Perreault (and it is all deserved) — Clark and Fehr have been playing pretty well despite limited ice time (though they’ve been getting a little more the past couple of games without No. 8).

* Semyon Varlamov has stopped 55 of 57 shots in the past two games. Since a great performance against Philadelphia on Oct. 27, Jose Theodore has only stopped 107 of 124 shots (that’s an .863 save percentge). Theodore was great to start the season, but he’s hit a bit of a lull.

Is it just a lull, or will we be looking back on this past week as when Varlamov grabbed control of the net? It will be worth monitoring.

* No one played 22 minutes for the Caps last night. Bruce Boudreau knew he in the middle of 3 games in 4 nights, obviously. It was surprising that Tyler Sloan led all skaters in ice time (21:19), but check out the six defensemen - five of them are between 18:10 and 21:19, but Shaone Morrisonn — despite being Mike Green’s partner at even strength — lagged behind at 15:22. It wasn’t like there were a lot of power plays to keep him teathered to the bench. There was about a seven-minute stretch in the second where Morrisonn didn’t play (could’ve been a equipment issue), but that still wouldn’t add up the 19:30-21:00 that Green, Sloan, Tom Poti and Brian Pothier played.

* The Caps are 5 for 13 on the power play with Ovechkin on the mend. Bruce Boudreau said he likes what he’s seen from Brendan Morrison on the point — could Ovechkin move up front when he returns? It certainly seems like the Caps have yielded fewer shorthanded chances, though the teams they’ve played haven’t been trotting Mike Richards or Rick Nash out there on the PK.

That’s it for now … I’ll check in again in a few hours from The Rock. Here’s hoping there is a crowd at Prudential Center worthy of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. At least there isn’t a Yankees game to use an excuse not to go this time.