- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 17, 2009

Officially, the Washington Capitals are in the Southeast Division along with Atlanta, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay.

The reality is, until they fall into a funk more serious than the three-game skid they stopped Wednesday or a division opponent proves worthy, the Caps belong in a new cluster of teams - Boston, Montreal, Philadelphia, New Jersey and the New York Rangers.

These are the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and each is capable of standing in the Caps’ way of earning better than the No. 3 seed in the postseason.

“We know we can beat anybody when we stick to our system and play well,” goaltender Jose Theodore said. “That’s what we’ve been doing. Against the top teams, you have to play well. We’ve worked hard, and we respected the system. We’re aware that when we do that, we’re a tough team to beat.”

The Caps host Boston on Saturday, a meeting that marks the end of a seven-game stretch that includes contests against the Flyers, Rangers, Canadiens and Bruins.

Toss in a game against the defending conference champs, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it has been a two-week test - a chance for the Caps to measure themselves against the other top teams in the East.

The Caps thus far have proved their standing in the conference - second place with 59 points - is legit. They defeated Philadelphia, New York and Pittsburgh and lost at Montreal on a bit of a fluky play with less than 30 seconds left in regulation.

“It means a lot. It shows that we are really as good as our record shows,” captain Chris Clark said. “We are a really good team and an elite team in the East.”

Added coach Bruce Boudreau: “I think it has been the toughest part of our schedule as far as opponents go. I never thought about it as legitimizing us, because I’ve always thought we were good. Maybe the other teams didn’t take us seriously. There are a couple of publications that have said we are the team that could drop off, so we’ve got that going for us.”

The Caps would say their first objective is to secure a Southeast title, and they sit 12 points in front of the Hurricanes - a team that has lost four straight games, including three to teams below it in the conference standings.

Games against division foes are supposed to be the most meaningful, but the bulk of those will come for the Caps during the closing stretch of the season, when they conceivably will have all but clinched the title.

The Caps have played only eight of their 24 divisional games. Ten of their final 13 contests come against Southeast teams.

Last season, the Caps nearly crippled their playoff hopes with a 6-14-1 start and spent the rest of the season chasing the Hurricanes. With the division race in their control this season, Boudreau’s charges must have new motivation. The new hare for the Caps to chase is the Bruins, who pace the NHL with 70 points.

“Our goal is stay above everybody else and catch the teams ahead of us,” Boudreau said. “Boston happens to be the team there now. We don’t know if it is possible, but you have to have something to shoot for every night.”

The Bruins have not looked dominant in recent games, but they’re still winning and doing so despite injuries to key players. Four of their top nine forwards (Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron and Marco Sturm), as well as defensemen Aaron Ward and Andrew Ference, could miss the Caps game.

What the Bruins do have going for them is perhaps the top goaltending tandem in the league in Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez, the Norris Trophy front-runner in Zdeno Chara and, despite the injuries, a dangerous collection of forwards that includes Marc Savard and breakout sensations Blake Wheeler and David Krejci.

“For sure, we’re aware that they are one of the best teams in the league and we’re going to have to be on top of our game to compete and have a chance to win,” Theodore said. “There’s an extra pressure that you’re playing against one of the best. Every time you play against a team that is ahead of you in the standings, it makes you want to work harder to catch them.”

Added Boudreau: “Whatever the reasoning is, Boston has no weaknesses - from the goaltender on out. They’re good.”

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