Monday, March 20, 2006

The Washington Capitals play their last home game until April 5 tonight, when the Montreal Canadiens visit Verizon Center.

In between, the Caps play seven road games — part of a tough finish to a disappointing season that includes 15 games in 28 days, 12 of them on the road.

Washington is not in the playoff race — their mathematical elimination process began some time ago. The Caps can finish no better than sixth in the Eastern Conference but to do even that a half a dozen teams will have to lose the rest of their games.

What no one in management will admit to is that it is watching the other end of the race: the draft lottery and the chance at one of a few special players available this draft. There are no Alex Ovechkins for 2006, but there are a few players who might help any roster.

In that regard, Pittsburgh is in front in the reverse order with just 46 points followed by St. Louis and Chicago with 51 points apiece and Washington with 52. The winner of the lottery can advance four spots.

There are seven teams separated by nine points in the playoff race in the East with the Canadiens currently eighth, one spot and three points behind the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay. Even Florida and Boston, mathematically alive with 65 points, can’t be counted out.

Massive shakeups are expected with some teams who don’t make the playoffs, but there probably will be shakeups on some teams either way. Toronto and Boston are reported to be in the market for new front office staffs and the same is being said in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins’ venture into free agency last summer was a dismal and costly failure.

In Washington, the Caps are simply trying to respectfully finish out the first year of their rebuilding program after a salary purge gutted the roster during the 2003-04 season. If yesterday’s practice was any indication, the coaches are still trying to get players to consistently use sound, fundamental defensive tactics in their zone. This has been an ongoing theme since early last September.

The highlight — low-light for goalies — of yesterday’s drill at Piney Orchard may have been when Ovechkin playfully scored almost at will against Olie Kolzig, then belly flopped on the ice in a fit of laughter.

“Where was that last night,” Kolzig shot back, referring to a 4-3 shootout loss to Florida in which Ovechkin did not score.

Ovechkin has been shut down in four of the last five games with teams playing him very close, hindering his movement and limiting his space. With the Caps having so few other good offensive weapons, it is a smart and so far successful ploy.

Coach Glen Hanlon said he will try converting the wing into a feeder “if this is how teams are going to play.”

“There are two people [on him], a wing and a defenseman,” he said. “They’ll shade him so if they’re going to put two guys on him, maybe Ovechkin will have to pass the puck to the other side. Eventually the puck will come back to him. He won’t go goal-less.”

It could work. Ovechkin is an excellent no-look passer and has four assists in his last three games.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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