- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

It is three games in four days — a road trip for the Washington Capitals that probably won’t determine the success of the improbable comeback they have crafted.

But it certainly could have a big impact.

Beginning with a matchup tonight of the NHL’s top goal scorers in Alex Ovechkin and Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk, the Caps have three straight games against Southeast Division foes in hostile territory.

“We’re playing everybody that we have to beat, and they all know the same thing,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, who is 21-11-4 since being put in charge. “It is the part of the hockey season that you love to come to. It is one of the reasons why the crowds get bigger come February and March.”

The Caps began yesterday in first place in the tightly packed division, and wins against Atlanta, Florida and Tampa Bay could provide separation and some security atop the standings. Of course, losses also could mean a fall to fourth place, which could put them closer to having the worst record in the conference than being in the playoffs by the end of the weekend.

The result of the parity — or mediocrity — will be plenty of scoreboard watching by every team in the division and postseason-type atmospheres.

“We are in the spot we’ve got to be in right now, but we’ve got to keep going,” center Boyd Gordon said. “It’s going to be a battle, so we know that every night is a playoff game here.”

This road trip will be a little different for the Caps because the team has organized a “Mentor’s Trip,” so the players’ fathers or father figures can accompany their sons and have the chance to experience life on the road in the NHL.

Sixteen fathers or mentors will join the team in Florida for the final two games of the trip, and there will be activities like a team dinner and some golfing and sightseeing — which will be dads only.

“I think it is an unbelievable opportunity, and I am quite jealous that my dad is not able to be here,” Boudreau said. “I know he would be proud as a peacock if he was here. Hopefully we will have some fun and take care of business at the same time.”

Hello and goodbye

Defenseman Sami Lepisto got a taste of life as an NHL player yesterday, but it was more like a nibble.

The Caps recalled Lepisto, a third-round pick from Finland in the 2004 draft, and he practiced with the team.

He was added to the roster in case John Erskine, who hadn’t played or practiced since a first period fight Friday night against Carolina, was not ready.

But Erskine practiced and pronounced himself ready to go, so Lepisto packed his bag and drove back to Hershey yesterday while the rest of the team flew to Atlanta.

“It was pretty nice to get to practice with all these people you normally just watch on TV,” Lepisto said. “It was a lot of fun. It was still hockey, so that was fun.”

Lepisto is in his first season in North America, but he has had little trouble adjusting.

The 23-year-old has two goals and 29 points in 37 games for the Hershey Bears, and his plus-25 rating is second in the American Hockey League. Listed at 6-foot and 176 pounds, Lepisto could give the Caps another defenseman with offensive punch in the coming seasons.

“He’s a good player,” Boudreau said. “Every game I’ve seen him play he’s done very well, and he’s getting closer and closer to being a potential NHL player.”

Today’s game

Washington Capitals AT Atlanta Thrashers

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Philips Arena, Atlanta

TV/Radio: CSN, FM-107.7, AM-1500

Goalies: Caps — Olie Kolzig (20-18-4). Thrashers — Kari Lehtonen (12-14-2).

Injuries: Caps — Out: C Michael Nylander (torn rotator cuff), RW Chris Clark (groin tendon), D Brian Pothier (concussion). Thrashers — Questionable: D Niclas Havelid.

Notes: Alex Ovechkin leads Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk by eight goals in the race for the Maurice Richard Trophy. Russians have never finished first and second in the league in goals. Kolzig will start tonight, and Brent Johnson is expected to start one of the two games in Florida this weekend.

Corey Masisak

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