- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2011

The way Alex Ovechkin danced around and celebrated Saturday night, it was as if the Capitals won a playoff game, or even a whole series.

Beating the Buffalo Sabres in overtime in the regular season isn’t quite the same, but it finished off a week in which the Caps picked up some lessons about winning hockey later this spring.

“You can tell, the teams that we’ve played are really in their playoff mode,” coach Bruce Boudreau said, “and it’s a great learning experience of seeing how teams are ramping it up for the playoffs.”

That kind of valuable experience comes at the perfect time, as Boudreau lamented that Saturday night’s game was “way too close to looking like last year.”

Three games in five days - all decided in overtime or a shootout - was the ideal preparation, players said. But the Caps also admitted they shouldn’t need regular-season games against the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets and Sabres to prevent a repeat of last season.

“I think that we should have learned about that in the last three years in the playoffs: We can’t take any games lightly,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “The last couple years we haven’t come out hard enough. … Hopefully we learn all that kind of stuff.”

Washington learned last season that being the top seed in the Eastern Conference assures nothing. The Caps cruised to the Presidents’ Trophy before bowing out in the first round to the Canadiens. But as Boudreau said recently, “We won’t have 121 points this year, but I think we’re smarter as a group and maybe a little bit better as a team.”

Nothing like facing desperate teams in Carolina and Buffalo to make the Caps better, too. Plus, they got to see playoff-style hockey. Saturday night’s game against the Sabres was a perfect example: a tight-checking game with odd bounces, defensive lapses and major momentum swings.

“It was a hard-fought game, it was a close game, it was intense,” defenseman Sean Collins said. “You could tell that they really wanted it and we really wanted it. That’s how it is in the playoffs. So I think it was definitely a good test and good preparation.”

When the playoffs begin, the results of this week won’t matter as much as how the Caps are playing. With that in mind, Boudreau said he’s much more worried about the process at this point. But picking up five of six points on the homestand has put Washington in a good spot going into the final three games - 103 points and just a tiebreaker short of the Flyers for first place in the East.

“You wanna have the home advantage as long as you can in the playoffs,” Backstrom said. “You wanna be as high up as you can in the standings and work from there.”

But for the Caps, the work has barely begun.

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