- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Washington Capitals have spent three months fighting their way back into playoff contention, but a recent bout of inconsistency is threatening to derail their postseason hopes.

After surging from last place in the entire NHL to the thick of the Southeast Division race during a 9-2-2 stretch from late December to late January, the Caps rise has flattened out a bit. Washington is 6-5-2 since a Jan. 21 win in Pittsburgh, and the Caps are four points behind the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes as the teams meet in Raleigh, N.C., tonight.

“We say it every week, but tomorrow is the biggest game of the year,” Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig said. “You’re going to have lulls. We can’t expect to always play at that [level] — we had so much ground to make up. You look at Detroit, they did it for three-quarters of the year but they have been fading now as the injuries pile up.”

A win at RBC Center would pull the Caps to within two points of the Hurricanes with three games in hand, but a regulation loss would leave the team six back with a daunting three-game stretch against other division-leading teams (home against New Jersey and Minnesota then on the road against the Devils) in a six-day span on the horizon.

Many of these young Caps players have never been in an NHL playoff chase, but they are in the process of their initiation.

“It is getting tougher. As the season goes on and it’s closer to the playoffs, everybody is picking it up. I think now we’re beginning to realize that and know hard we have to play every night,” defenseman Mike Green said. “Teams are playing so much better — it is not like the regular season before Christmas. This is playoff hockey right now and every game is so important. It is do or die, and we have to have that mentality.”

Not enough offense has been the biggest problem. Kolzig’s numbers have taken a significant turn for the better in the past month and backup Brent Johnson has continued to be solid when called upon. But the Caps have only 30 goals in the past 13 games (2.3 a game) after racking up 51 (nearly four a game not counting shootout winners) in the previous 13.

General manager George McPhee’s message to the media Thursday was that he would listen to offers from other teams as Tuesday’s trade deadline approaches, but he does not want to trade from the team’s pool of young players and draft picks for a short-term solution. That means a scoring boost likely will need to come from within.

The Caps spent a sizable chunk of practice working on the power play. While the team has netted an extra-man goal in three straight games, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau has not been happy with the overall effectiveness. Washington is 6-for-41 in the past 13 games with the extra man, and too often the team has struggled to set up in the offensive zone.

Those struggles have played a role in Alex Ovechkin’s first slump of the season. He has no goals in three games for the first time all year and only two in the past six games. In the process he has lost the scoring lead to Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, but he brushed that line of questioning aside yesterday.

“It is nothing. I am happy for somebody [else] to be first,” Ovechkin said. “I think that trip to Florida was not good trip for us. We were a little bit tired in the sun and it [went a] little different than just hockey — more like vacation. But now I think we are back to same way we were two or three weeks ago. We are practicing better.”

After letting a point slip away against the New York Islanders on Wednesday — the third time in as many games they have surrendered a third-period lead — the Caps took a day away from the ice to regroup before returning to practice to prepare for a critical forthcoming week.

“It is the games like that one against the Islanders that are hard to get up for that you let slip away and you look back at the end and say, ‘Oh shoot,’ ” Kolzig said. “It’s been a while since we’ve been in the playoffs and to do what we’ve done to get back into it, it wouldn’t be right if we fell short.”

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