By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007
DALLAS, Jan. 25 -- Alex Ovechkin described his first NHL All-Star Game experience as "unbelievable" and "amazing" and "incredible." Yet, in a quiet moment following Wednesday's game, the Washington Capitals winger conceded he was happy to be headed home.
"I wanted to score four goals, but I score only one," Ovechkin said, referring to his second-period goal in the Eastern Conference's 12-9 loss at American Airlines Center. "But it's okay. It was my dream to play in all-star game in NHL."
Then he took a deep breath and added, "But it's good to be over."
Unlike his teammates, who scattered across North America for the four-day break, Ovechkin won't get any downtime. Instead, he'll return to Washington from a hectic week here facing the biggest challenge of his young career: lead the struggling Capitals to their first playoff berth since the 2002-03 season.
It won't be easy.
Ovechkin and the Capitals (20-21-7) begin the stretch run Friday at RBC Center against the Carolina Hurricanes in the first game of a home-and-home series against their Southeast Division rivals (25-19-6), whom they beat in Raleigh, 5-2, eight days ago.
Washington learned Thursday it will be without defenseman Brian Pothier and winger Matt Bradley.
Pothier, the team's ice time leader at 24 minutes 59 seconds per game and steadiest player on one of the league's shakiest bluelines, has not skated since suffering an upper-body injury a week ago. Bradley, meantime, won't make the trip for personal reasons. It's unclear when either player will return to a lineup that's still missing defensemen Bryan Muir and John Erskine (both are out indefinitely because of broken feet) as well as veteran right wing Richard Zednik (abdominal surgery).
The injuries couldn't come at worse time for the Capitals, who have 34 games left to prove they belong among the conference's eight playoff teams. They've dropped four of their past five games -- including a pair of listless losses to a Florida team that's behind them in the standings -- and nine of the past 13. The slide has left them three points out of a playoff spot and only one point ahead of the 14th-place Panthers.
But they can take heart that none of the teams immediately ahead of them in the tightly packed standings has managed to pull away. In fact, positions 8 through 14 are separated by only four standings points.
While all of the Capitals figure to feel some pressure over the next 2 1/2 months, much of the burden will be shouldered by Ovechkin, the team's leading scorer with 29 goals and 65 points. In recent weeks, the 21-year-old has been challenged by the coaching staff to raise the level of his play, particularly in the defensive end.
"It's everyone," captain Chris Clark said by telephone from Washington. "It's going to come down to the team that comes out of the break and shows they really want it. When we get away from our game, the way we're supposed to be playing, that's when we take a step back. If we get everybody back on track system-wise, apply our work ethic to the skill we have, I feel we can definitely make the playoffs."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Jeff Schultz, 20, was recalled from Hershey (Pa.) of the American Hockey League and will be in the lineup against the Hurricanes. . . . Ovechkin said he plans to continue wearing the bluish mirrored visor that was attached to his helmet during the All-Star Game.