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Caps on a Mission, Starting in Tampa

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Washington Capitals were among the Eastern Conference's eight potential playoff teams when they left town yesterday. Whether they find themselves there in April will have a lot to do with what transpires while they're away.

Tonight's game in Tampa begins the season's longest road trip -- eight days -- against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators and Carolina Hurricanes, all in the mix for one of the final postseason berths in a conference where a total of seven points separates fifth place from 13th.

"We're playing teams that are right in the heat of it," center Brian Sutherby said. "We've got to try to take points away from those guys and not give them ours."

Sutherby and his teammates departed following a lighthearted hour-long skate at Kettler Capitals Iceplex that seemed to reflect the players' mood just hours after winning their third straight game, a 6-2 pummeling of the NHL-worst Philadelphia Flyers.

Although it was far from a flawless performance, the Capitals (19-17-7) accomplished something that is done regularly by teams that harbor playoff hopes: They knocked off a vulnerable opponent when nothing less than a victory would have been acceptable.

"Our skilled players won a game for us when in the past we may have lost that game," Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said, referring to Alex Ovechkin, who scored twice to move into sole possession of the league lead in goals with 28, and Alexander Semin, who notched his 22nd.

Hanlon also provided a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a maturing locker room. He and his assistants realized late last month they were putting too much pressure on their young players, many of whom are experiencing their first NHL playoff push. So the coaches decided to let veteran leaders such as Olie Kolzig, Chris Clark, Dainius Zubrus and Sutherby take charge.

"As a staff, we felt that from games 35 to 40, we talked too much about the playoffs," Hanlon said.

"For three years, we haven't applied any pressure and we felt like that was the correct environment. But now what we've talked about with our captains is they can [apply] the pressure. They can take hold and take charge and they can talk about the importance of each game in terms of where we are in the standings. We're just going to back off and let things unfold."

Kolzig said Hanlon's tune changed following the 3-2 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes on New Year's Day, the Capitals' fifth straight defeat. Before the next game, the coach turned the floor over to the veterans.

The Capitals went out that night and defeated the Montreal Canadiens, 5-1, and they haven't lost since. It was a test of the locker room's leadership. And the leaders delivered.

"He just felt like it was time for the players to take charge," Kolzig said. "The coaches set the game plan, but it's up to us to get the room going and make everyone accountable. It's worked. We've played some pretty solid hockey."

The Capitals' direction over the final 39 games could hinge on whether they can build on that recent breakthrough, beginning tonight at St. Pete Times Forum against Martin St. Louis and the Lightning, which has won three of four.

"We have to be hungry and relentless and want to succeed," Sutherby said. "This road trip is huge."

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