- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2011

MONTREAL | The Capitals went into Bell Centre on Saturday night and took care of the Canadiens with one of their best recent performances. And they did so without Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and Jason Arnott.

Which leaves the question: Just how good can the Caps be if they put together that kind of performance with their big guns back?

“It’s gonna be scary,” center Nick Backstrom said. “It’s gonna be fun.”

That’s the mindset around the locker room as the Caps have been rolling along amid injuries to key contributors. They’re 12-2 in their past 14 as the likes of Jay Beagle, D.J. King and Tyler Sloan have at times stepped into the lineup.

Coach Bruce Boudreau was asked Saturday whether he felt ready for the playoffs to begin.

“If we got everybody healthy, I’d be ready to go tomorrow,” he said. “Things are starting to come around. We’d be ready. Give us a couple days to prepare and we’d be ready.”

Healthy players are on the way. Ovechkin and Arnott are expected to practice in full gear Monday and could play by sometime this week with Green “hopefully” back for the final three regular-season games, Boudreau said.

On Saturday in Montreal, at least, Washington looked more than primed for playoff hockey as a result of Braden Holtby’s shutout victory that was the product of a buzzing offense and lockdown defense. It’s nothing new; the Caps have allowed more than two goals just three times in the past 14 games.

“I think right now [Arnott] and [Ovechkin] and [Green] are huge players for us … [but] it doesn’t matter who’s in the lineup right now,” Backstrom said. “We’re a hardworking club, and when we do that and we do our forecheck right and everything, it’s kinda tough to stop us.”

That’s one of the points of Boudreau’s defensive system: Even the loss of some big offensive players doesn’t drastically alter much. As winger Mike Knuble has pointed out, it’s impossible to replace Ovechkin’s offense or Arnott’s leadership, but consistency in the neutral and defensive zones has become the cornerstone of this team.

Boudreau is even getting some talk - at least among some in Canada - for Jack Adams Award consideration as coach of the year. He deflected any questions about this transformation being his greatest “coaching coup.”

“For most of them now, it’s fun to win by not allowing the other team to score, whereas last year it was fun to win ‘cause we scored six goals,” he said. “If we’d get up 5-1, it would end up 6-4 and they weren’t upset about it. But now they get upset when they get scored on, so it’s a big difference.”

Without Ovechkin and Arnott specifically (Dennis Wideman has effectively replaced Green, Boudreau said), the Caps have featured several line combinations in a search for chemistry. Some combinations - such as Knuble with Marcus Johansson and Backstrom with Alexander Semin and Marco Sturm - have worked extremely well.

When the injured players come back, another juggling act will begin. But the Caps are ready to adjust and make room for another influx of talent to return to the lineup.

“We wanna play good going into the playoffs, and obviously the big guys are still out and that’s a good sign,” Sturm said. “We can’t wait till we get these guys back, too, so we’ve got the whole squad, and get prepared for the playoffs.”

NOTE: Holtby was sent back to Hershey on Sunday morning even after blanking the Canadiens. “It’s the reality of things,” Holtby said.

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